Editor's Note – All this week Gender Blog will post a five-part review of Scot McKnight's "The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible" by Dr. Thomas Schreiner. Dr. Schreiner has been the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary since 1997 and the Associate Dean of Scripture and Interpretation. Dr. Schreiner is also a member of the Board of Reference for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
The title of Scot McKnight's new book is intriguing and beckons the reader to its contents. What does a blue parakeet have to do with interpreting the Bible? McKnight tells the story of the surprising arrival of a blue parakeet to his yard, and compares its unexpected presence to texts in the scriptures that confound our conventional explanations of what the Bible says. None of us, says McKnight, really does everything that the Bible says. We are selective in applying the Bible, and so we pick and choose what parts of scripture to practice. For instance, no one, claims McKnight, actually practices the Sabbath as it is set forth in the OT. Most of us don't practice foot-washing even though Jesus explicitly commanded us to do so. Indeed, Jesus commanded his disciples to give up all their possessions, but very few, if any, do this either.
How should we respond to the fact that we don't do everything the Bible says? McKnight says that we could try to put ourselves back into the world of the Bible and literally do all that it commands. Those who do so are to be commended for their sincerity, but it is impossible for twenty-first century people to try to live in accord with a first-century culture. Indeed, "it is undesirable and unbiblical to retrieve it all" (p. 26). We need to apply the teaching of the scriptures in a fresh and powerful way to our time instead. Others read the Bible in accord with tradition, and McKnight applauds the desire to read the scriptures in accord with "the Great Tradition." Still, we must beware of "traditionalism," which hardens the tradition in such a way that a fresh word of scripture can never dent the tradition. McKnight proposes instead that we must read the Bible "with the Great Tradition" (p. 34), so that the Bible rather than tradition functions as our final authority, even though we are informed by the tradition. Otherwise, we will fall into the danger of losing the wonder of seeing the blue parakeets in scripture.
So, how should we read the Bible? McKnight emphasizes throughout the book that the Bible must be read as story, as part of a grand narrative. McKnight identifies five wrong ways to read the Bible: 1) reading the Bible as a collection of laws without considering their place in the overall story; 2) isolating texts of scripture so that we take verses out of context and apply the "blessings" promised to ourselves; 3) reading the Bible arbitrarily, so that we see in the Bible what we want to see; 4) putting together the Bible like we put together a puzzle, making all the pieces fit into a system, even though all the pieces don't fit so neatly. Hence, we claim our Baptist, Lutheran, Wesleyan, etc. version captures what the scriptures teach. Those who move in this direction mistakenly think that they have mastered the Bible; 5) finding our master or "Maestro" in the Bible, so that we become "Jesus" Christians or "Pauline" Christians and fail to see the variety God intended in scripture.
If we read the Bible as story, according to McKnight, we will be true to its message and apply it rightly in our day. And how do we do this? McKnight affirms that "the secret to reading the Bible" is found in the saying "that was then and this is now" (p. 57). In other words, it is unwise and even unbiblical to try to do everything commanded in scripture. We must recognize the unfolding story found in the scriptures, and so any single passage or command in the Bible must be read in light of that story.
What is the story of the Bible? McKnight summarizes it as follows: 1) God created us in his image, so that we would be one with him and others; 2) Human beings sinned, and their union with God and others was sundered; 3) God forms a covenant community to solve this problem in Genesis-Malachi; 4) Christ-who perfectly images God-redeems his people and restores the unity lost; 5) We experience perfect oneness at the consummation of all things. It is this story that holds the Bible together, and the pieces of the Bible must be interpreted within such a context. McKnight particularly emphasizes unity between human beings as the goal of the story. Indeed, he says: "The story of the Bible aims at Galatians 3:28" (p. 75). The ultimate goal of the entire Bible is the unity we enjoy and will enjoy in Christ Jesus. The fundamental purpose of Pentecost is to "create oneness" in "the covenant community" (p. 77). Believers are united with God, but "the focus of this oneness in the Bible is oneness with others" (p. 78).
We must read the Bible as story, and we do this well, says McKnight, by listening to what the Bible says. Here is the danger of what McKnight calls an "authority approach" to the Bible, where people say God has told us what to do, and our job is to submit and obey. Such a view is deeply unsatisfying, for it fails to see that we have a relationship with God and that his words are not a duty but a delight. We must remember that God is not the Bible. Instead, he speaks to us in the Bible. We have a serious problem if we emphasize our knowledge of the Bible instead of the God who speaks to us in the Bible. McKnight concludes that those who are truly loving God and delighting in him "never need to speak of the Bible as their authority nor do they speak of their submission to the Bible" (p. 93). In the same way, McKnight notes, those who describe the relationship of a husband and wife in terms of authority and hierarchy instead of a relationship of love distort the nature of that relationship. What it means to listen to God in the Bible is to hear his voice, and ultimately to do what he says. Still, we need to beware of a mechanical reading of scripture. We need to read the scriptures with a kind of "missional living."
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