McKnight's post is a letter largely addressing the issue that I've seen pop up periodically in the thoughts and writings of emergents: shouldn't we be more concerned with following Jesus and his teachings than with Paul? Many emergents think that the Church (especially evangelicals) has paid a disproportionate amount of attention to Paul rather than Jesus. Here is McKnight's paragraph explaining the issue with his reader:
Your point seemed to favor one idea: that Jesus is not only “the first one we need to go to” (which your friend advocates) but (what you think) the “only one we really need. After all,” you ask, “what else do we really need besides Jesus’ teaching?” Besides, you observe, Paul’s “so abstract and theoretical and all his stuff about justification doesn’t really make sense to any of us.”
I encourage you to read McKnight's post, it was thoughtful, generous and insightful. My response would probably not be any of these things.
McKnight's conversation partner reflects a common understanding within the Emergent Movement. That is, we should be what some have called "red letter Christians" who avoid the common trap of "reading Jesus through the lens of Paul." This line of thought concerns me (which should be no surprise for those who know me well), I guess for two main reasons.
One, this strikes me as awfully arrogant. What makes us think we can interpret Jesus better than Paul? I mean, wasn't Paul a Jew who lived in the same time frame as Jesus? Wasn't he the one who encountered the risen Christ and had his life radically transformed? Wasn't he the one who risked his life to preach the good news of this Savior to the entire world, and ultimately faced his death because of this? How arrogant would I be to think that I can understand and apply Jesus' teachings better than Paul?
Two, there seems to be a fundamental problem with hermeneutics here (by "hermeneutics" I mean the process of applying an ancient text to today, the basic question is "how do we get from there to here?"). Because we don't grasp the first issue (how Paul applies Jesus' teachings), we don't grasp how to apply Paul. If we studied Paul and asked the questions "how?" (how does Paul apply Jesus?) and "why?" (why does Paul apply it in this way?) we might have a clue to following Jesus' teachings. It seems to me that Paul would be a great case study for us. While our contexts are certainly different, there are striking similarities that could give us a clue how to preach the gospel faithfullly in our context. Both contexts (Paul's and ours) are pluralistic, socially diverse, economically diverse, morally loose, and so on. (It's interesting to note that Jesus ministered in a monotheistic and morally stringent- to the point of legalism in some cases- atmosphere. That doesn't sound too much like modern day America, does it?)
I think this is what bothers me when McKnight's reader says that "all his [Paul's] stuff about justification doesn’t really make sense to any of us." It was this doctrine that Paul used to defend the right of Gentiles to fellowship with Jews. It wasn't abstract or theoretical. It was practical. Justification by faith meant that Gentiles could eat with Jews (making the reverse true as well), worship with Jews, etc, without having to become "Jews" (circumcision being the most obvious issue). It doesn't get much more practical than that. Given that emergents are so concerned with equality between classes/races/cultures/etc (one of their most admirable qualities), justification should be emphasized in their circles, not diminished. I think the movement would be much more powerful and productive if it would spend more time reflecting on these things.