Pauline Studies

The Gospel as More Than “Words”: The Bates-McKnight Controversy and Graham Twelftree’s New Book

Scot McKnight and Matthew Bates have new pieces in Christianity Today in which they respond to a recent criticism of their work. The two men are first-rate scholars and I have learned much from their work. They are also wonderful men who model what it looks like to do serious academic work in a way that is informed by faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed, you can expect to read some posts about their important contributions here in the coming weeks.

Here, however, I wanted to make an observation inspired by my recent reading of Graham Twelftree’s new book, The Gospel according to Paul: A Reappraisal (Cascade, 2019).

First, some background.

In their recent pieces, McKnight and Bates talk about what is at the heart of the “gospel”. Specifically, contrary to those who would like to insist that the gospel message is focused on what happens to believers, McKnight and Bates insist on focusing first on the person and work of Jesus Christ. In particular, McKnight and Bates are responding to Greg Gilbert, who recently implied that they “divorce” the message of Jesus’ kingship “from the realities of personal salvation.” This is simply an inaccurate characterization of McKnight and Bates.

McKnight writes the following:

One of Gilbert’s themes, which derives from Luther, is the centrality of justification by faith to the gospel itself. . .

But making justification “central” is a problem. To begin with, it tends to be explanatory: one can make anything central if one uses it to explain everything else. But it’s unbiblical because one finds the term “justification” three times in the Gospels (Luke 10:29; 16:15; 18:14). Rare is the point. When one presses this too hard one discovers that Jesus didn’t or rarely did preach the gospel of the centrality of justification. That’s a serious mistake. Jesus, instead, chose kingdom to express his gospel. That’s why the Evangelists say he preached the “gospel of the kingdom.” He preached the gospel… he is the gospel. Everywhere he went he was gospeling. He was the “autobasileia,” the kingdom itself.

Scot McKnight, “King Jesus Gospel: Mere Kingship? No.” [Source]

It is worth highlighting the way McKnight and Bates speak of the core Christian message as “the gospel.” Here are two more examples (with some emphasis added):

I will say it here then: the irony of Gilbert’s post is that while criticizing our king Jesus framing of the gospel he now frames the gospel by king Jesus. Matt and I see this as a step forward in what it means to be “together” for the gospel.

McKnight, “King Jesus Gospel” [Source]


The true biblical gospel climaxes with the proclamation that Jesus has become the Christ, Lord of all, the king (Acts 2:36; 3:20-23; 10:36).

Matthew Bates, “Good News? Are T4G/TGC Leaders Starting To Change Their Gospel?” [Source]

Throughout their pieces, McKnight and Bates speak about what the “gospel,” that is, the New Testament message, involves.

Make no mistake about it: the gospel is described as a message in the New Testament. In Matthew, we read that Jesus preaches, “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt 4:23; 9:35). Jesus says that “the gospel” will be “preached” throughout the whole world (Matt 26:13). Likewise, Paul talks about he “preaches” the “gospel” (Rom 1:15).

It is very common, then, for us to equate the “gospel” with the “message about Jesus.”

What Twelftree shows in his helpful book is this: for Paul the “gospel” is not always simply reducible to a message. The meaning of the term varies from passage to passage. Sometimes it refers to the “message” Paul “proclaims,” but other times it involves more than that.

I put “proclaim” in quotations above for good reason. Among other things, Twelftree also shows that the term typically translated “preach” or “proclaim” is perhaps more accurately translated “gospelize” since the verb is euangelizō, the verbal form of the noun translated “gospel” (euangelion). Indeed, in various places euangelizō seems to involve more than just speaking words.

I cannot possibly catalogue all of Twelftree’s findings here. His detailed treatment of Paul’s various usages of “gospel” is nuanced and rigorous. Anyone serious about Pauline Studies should read this book.

One key verse Twelftree highlights (among others) is found in Romans 1:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

Romans 1:16

As Twelftree shows, Michael Gorman and other Pauline scholars have made the point that here the “gospel” seem to involve more than just “data”–it is more than just “words.”

Twelftree also highlights Romans 15:15-17, which he translates as follows:

For I will not presume to speak anything that Christ has no accomplished through me, to win obedience from the Gentiles, word and deed, in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and as far around to Illyricum I have fulfilled (or completed [peplērōkenai]) the gospel of Christ. Thus I am eager to gospel where Christ has not been named.”

Romans 15:18-20

Twelftree writes:

Our interest is in understanding what Paul means, first, by the noun “gospel” (euangelion) and then by the very “gospel” (euangelizō). The noun comes in a result clause introduced by “so that” (hōste): “so that I have fulfilled the gospel of Christ” (Rom 15:19). What “so that” refers back to, or includes, is not clear. It could refer only to his specific description of his work (15:18) or back to include the general description of his work in priestly terms (from Rom 15:15). Given the inferential conjunction “for” (gar) that holds together both his general and specific statements of his work, fulfilling or completing the gospel of Christ is his entire work, though understood specifically as what “Christ has . . . accomplished through me, to win obedience from the Gentiles, word and deed, in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit of [God]” (Rom 15:18b-19a).

The “gospel” is, then, what Christ is accomplishing through Paul. Notably, the gospel is accomplished not only in word, but also in deed, which he explains means signs and wonders or miracles, accomplished by the Spirit.

Twelftree, The Gospel according to Paul, p. 176.

Twelftree concludes that in Romans:

. . . the term ‘gospel’ can capture not only Paul’s message or ministry, but the narrative or drama of God’s action in Christ, including in the present (Rom 11:28), in which the gentiles–the non-Jews–become acceptable in that they are sanctified in the Spirit (15:16). In turn, then, the gospel can be what Christ is accomplishing through Paul (15:19) and, hence, the activity (euangelizō) through which the gospel comes in his ministry (15:20).

Twelftree, The Gospel according to Paul, p. 177.

In short, Twelftree shows that in certain passages in Paul, the gospel is more than just “words” about Jesus. Yet nailing down what it means varies from passage to passage. It seems to even exceed our linguistic capacities. He writes:

Paul’s understanding of the Gospel is so rich and multivalent that even his own definition of it for the Romans (Rom 1:16-17) is frequently burst by his own hand so that it can take on different meanings.

Twelftree, The Gospel according to Paul, p. 193.

Twelftree’s work is worth reading in full. I cannot possibly do it justice here. You can find it here on the publisher’s website with all of the impressive endorsements.

One endorser, by the way, is none other than Scot McKnight, who writes:

Graham Twelftree’s meticulous examination contends the gospel must be seen in all its fullness and not through a single, narrow lens. This book will prove to be a significant turning point in gospel studies and deserves a wide, fair, and conversational reading.

Scot McKnight

I agree with McKnight; Twelftree’s book is an important study that should be carefully engaged.

I am so accustomed to think of the “gospel” as a “message,” I must admit that I glossed over the nuance in Paul’s language before I read Twelftree’s study. To be sure, it is important to be able to clarify what the gospel message is for Paul. In fact, in our new book, Paul, A New Covenant Jew: Rethinking Pauline Theology (Eerdmans, 2019), Brant Pitre, John Kincaid, and I take a stab at it (indeed, we have a whole chapter on how justification fits into Paul’s overall message). For one thing, we would certainly agree that the gospel is first about Christ, the divine Son.

In our book, we specifically seek to unpack “Paul’s gospel.” After reading Twelftree’s book, I wonder if it might be better to speak of “the gospel message” instead of just “the gospel” to try to capture the multivalent dimension of Paul’s “gospel” language.

In all of this, let me be clear: I do not mean at all to imply that McKnight and Bates reduce the “gospel” to “words.” Like I said, McKnight endorses Twelftree’s book! He clearly knows how complex Paul’s language is.

Bates’ position on whether gospel might mean more than just “words about Jesus” is a bit less clear to me. I do not know that he has engaged Twelftree’s book in print yet. Since it is brand new (and since there are a plethora of new books on Paul), I would not expect that he has. In his work, Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2019), he argues against vague definitions of the gospel. This is very helpful. While I have quibbles with his book, there are some very fine insights here. Yet it seems to me that he might resist some of what Twelftree says. I will have to wait to see if he agrees with McKnight’s assessment of the book (which, to be fair, does not necessarily involve a blanket endorsement of all of Twelftree’s findings).

Nevertheless, I do wonder if simply debating the meaning of “the gospel” will reinforce the notion that the gospel is simply “data.” While the debate about the message of the gospel is unavoidable, I hope we do not lose sight of the nuanced nature of Paul’s “gospel” language.

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