Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew

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Scot McKnight’s companion book with Five Things Theologians Wished Biblical Scholars Knew is almost as disturbing as the first. Hans Boersma, the author of the volume mentioned above, comes fully equipped with Anglo-Catholic, mystical, and liberal credentials, but McKnight is a card-carrying evangelical. This renders the work under review even more disappointing than the latter book, if that’s possible. That said, there are features of Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew that are of value.

The “five things” on McKnight’s list are that theology needs a constant return to Scripture, needs to know its impact on biblical studies, needs historically shaped biblical studies, needs more narrative, and needs to be lived. The author set the agenda by writing, “The fundamental starting point is that we Bible folks think systematicians sometimes get a bit too far from Scripture” (p. 13). The rest of the book explores the five items mentioned above that offer balance to theologians. The most serious recommendation, and no doubt most combative, is the need for theologians to begin with Scripture rather than creeds, confessions and systematic theology. The indictment is that creeds have become more authoritative than Scripture and that Scripture is being read through theological lenses rather than theology being dependent on exegesis. “I am convinced,” McKnight writes, “that we must begin with the Bible, and we must let the Bible speak on its own…there you have our problem: Bible versus creeds versus confessions versus systematics” (p. 3). Still in the introduction, he drives in a stake: “All theology must start at the exegetical level. At times theologians occasionally toss in some Bible references to decorate their theology rather than let the Bible form their theology” (p. 10). The first chapter opens with the claim that “biblical scholarship begins with the Bible, systematic theology somewhere else” (p. 15). But it is not as simple as it might seem—to start with Scripture—for broadly speaking there are three approaches (or models) that Bible scholars take.

  • The retrieval model, which seeks to pull theology straight from the Bible (pp. 17-18). It is a back to the Bible (sola scriptura or at least prima scriptura) approach. Theology is a commentary and exposition of Scripture (p. 19).
  • The expansive model which insists that we interpret the Bible through the creeds and church tradition, developing new insights into the biblical text (pp. 24-29).
  • The integrative model (which McKnight prefers) which begins with the Bible but expands what the Bible says. Respect is given to the creeds but the anchor is tied to the Scripture itself (pp. 30-34).

None of the interpreting models addresses the crucial issue of hermeneutics. It is here that McKnight’s Achilles’ heel is exposed. He insists that he is a “Bible Guy,” but he wants nothing to do with the label of “biblicist.” Unfortunately, his definition of biblicism is a strawman position that virtually no one espouses and means “the bracketing or rejection of the church’s theological tradition to go back to the Bible all over again and begin all over again. To be a biblicist is to be a theological anarchist” (p. 40). To my knowledge, there are no biblicists by this definition. No one opens his or her Bible without a theological framework. But in the author’s attempt to expose biblicism, he turns to the Roman Catholic sociologist Christian Smith, of all people, who provides ten descriptions of a biblicist. With the exception of the accusation of solo scriptura, Smith’s descriptions are actually a listing of the elements held dear by those who believe in biblical sufficiency (pp. 42-43). It is at this point that the author begins to attack grammatical-historical hermeneutics and the search for authorial intent in the biblical text (p. 33). McKnight favors the allegorical, christocentrical approach of the patristics and Medieval scholars (p. 44).

As the book progresses, the author challenges and redefines other essential doctrines. He believes, with N.T. Wright, that most theologians and Bible scholars have misunderstood the gospel. It is not God’s plan of redemption for sinners but a social rescue of the planet and all the ills of people, including poverty, ecological, government, etc. (pp. 78-79). Closely connected to the gospel is one’s understanding of the atonement, and McKnight apparently does not accept penal substitution (p. 78). Then there is his redefinition of grace claiming that it has never meant a free gift, for grace always required mutual reciprocity (pp. 80-88). “In the ancient world, nothing was free. Pure gift, then, cannot be assumed when the Bible communicates grace and gift” (p. 85).

Chapter four is more helpful as McKnight observes that the Bible is not handed down to us in a systematic theology format but mostly as narrative and should be read as such (pp. 95-101). Unfortunately, there is no one narrative approach and when scholars attempt to wrap the Bible around a preferred theme, such as covenant, liberation, kingdom, redemption, etc., the chosen theme begins to control the meaning of Scripture. McKnight, nevertheless, offers his own narrative located around three themes: theocracy, monarchy, and christocracy (pp. 108-111). Christocracy to McKnight means that the “church does not replace Israel; the church expands Israel. That is, Israel expanded is the church…Christocracy entails generations of mission to expand Israel/church into the whole world” (p. 109). The author struggles with the “Holy War” texts of the Old Testament (pp. 112-114), ultimately resolving the dilemma by accepting William Webb’s redemptive hermeneutic (in which Scripture does not offer the final or highest ethic—that is found progressively. Scripture points to, but does not provide the ultimate conclusion), with a bit of Greg Boyd (known for his open theism), and coupled with a metaphorical eschatology (pp. 112-114).

The final chapter rightly concludes that “theology that is not lived is not theology” (p. 119). Five recent studies on ethical theology are briefly described (pp. 120-128), concluding with a reworking of the epistle of Romans, suggesting, of course, that most commentators have gotten it wrong.

McKnight wants theologians to begin with the Bible, not the creeds, confessions, and words of celebrated men and women from the past. His point is on the mark, but along the way he deconstructs everything from hermeneutics to the atonement to the gospel to grace to the Bible itself. If this volume was written to inspire Christians to have confidence in Scripture, basing their faith on God’s Word rather than man’s, it is a complete failure. Even if one embraces the overall theme, he or she would come away with considerable doubt about what the Bible actually says.

by Scot McKnight (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021) 166 pp + XIV

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel

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