Editor's Note – All this week Gender Blog is posting 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 serves as the Associate Dean of Scripture and Interpretation. Dr. Schreiner also serves on the Board of Reference for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
I have sketched in McKnight's book in some detail without comment, hoping that thereby I have fairly summarized the book. McKnight is a very fine NT scholar, and I have especially enjoyed his books A Light among the Gentiles and A New Vision for Israel. His article on the warning passages in Hebrews is also outstanding, even if I would not endorse all his conclusions. I have to admit that I have a fond spot for him in my heart because he invited me to write my first book, and served as my editor. So, my response to him here, though I strongly disagree with him at points, is part of what I hope is a friendly dialogue.
McKnight raises critical hermeneutical questions, and rightly reminds us that there are texts that are uncomfortable for all of us. Our systems can squeeze out what the Lord actually says, so that we domesticate the text to fit with our pre-formed notions. McKnight also articulates a helpful way to consider tradition. The tradition of the church is respected and consulted, but the scriptures, not tradition, constitute the final authority. Nevertheless, McKnight fails to say something very important at this point. Pride of place goes to tradition, so that a novel interpretation must be defended quite convincingly to overcome the tradition. The tradition, if it is virtually unanimous, represents the interpretation of many generations of Christians for 2000 years. We become accustomed to talking to ourselves in our own day and can easily fall into the error of "chronological snobbery" as C. S. Lewis warned. Nevertheless, McKnight rightly warns us about the dangers of traditionalism; the tradition always stands under the scriptures, for they function as the final authority, and hence we must beware of canonizing tradition.
McKnight is also correct in saying that we must interpret the scriptures in light of the entire biblical storyline. Still, McKnight's own summary of the story, though it has positive features, is truncated.1 For instance, it is unconvincing to say that much of the OT (Genesis 12-Esther) is focused on community. What is striking is how the God- and Christ-centeredness of biblical revelation is muted. For example, isn't the consummation of all of biblical revelation seeing God's face and living in his presence forever (Revelation 21:3-4)? But McKnight's so-called goal statement focuses on the horizontal (Galatians 3:28). Indeed, many of the laws in the Pentateuch were not given fundamentally for the sake of community, but were declared so that God's people would be holy before him. Similarly, the Psalms emphasize that the Lord is to be praised, and Paul stresses that the root sin is the failure to praise and glorify God (Romans 1:21). Such themes could be emphasized more in McKnight's sketch of the biblical storyline.
McKnight also underemphasizes the role of law in the story (cf. most of Exodus 19 to the end of Deuteronomy). Yes, laws must be interpreted in light of the story, but one wonders what role law actually plays in McKnight's hermeneutic. He quotes approvingly F. F. Bruce's statement that we should not turn Paul's letters into law (p. 207). It is difficult to see what practical role moral norms play in McKnight's thinking. He seems to focus almost solely upon discernment (see below) and the Spirit. McKnight believes homosexuality is unbiblical and has taken a stand against it. Still, his claim that the participation of gays and lesbians is in a fuzzy and gray area is confusing, for it could be taken to mean that gays and lesbians may participate in our churches without repenting of their sin. McKnight assures me that he thinks homosexuality is wrong. Still, his discussion here could give the wrong impression since in the same context he criticizes turning the Bible into a law book (p. 131). It seems that McKnight privileges his story-version of scripture over law, but scripture consists of both stories and laws. Yes, the laws must be interpreted in light of the story, and yet at the same time we must also stress the universality of moral norms. McKnight's appeal to story runs the danger of becoming reductionistic.
McKnight wisely warns against trying to master the Bible by putting all the pieces of the Bible together, as if we are able to shove every piece into place. There is a kind of know-it-all arrogance that is off-putting, and I am sure McKnight ran into it in fundamentalist circles. And even though I did not grow up as a fundamentalist, I have seen the same. And yet McKnight goes too far. Here the Great Tradition is more balanced than McKnight. Systematic theology, historically, is an attempt to capture what scripture as a whole teaches. It should be informed by biblical theology, and it has sometimes ignored the storyline of scripture, but such abuses do not rule out the task of systematic theology as a whole. The Great Tradition comes from scholars who did systematic theology, and we ignore their work to our peril. McKnight gives the impression that if we can't put all the pieces together, then it is wrong to put any pieces into the puzzle, as if the storyline approach he favors is the only way to do theology. Story and systematics, at the end of the day, should not be played off against each other. They are friends and not enemies. McKnight's book would have more resonance and depth if he drew on the wisdom of those who have done systematic theology. If systematic theology has sometimes gone to extremes, a focus on story may end up committing the same kind of error.
The Bible should be a delight rather than a duty, and here McKnight is fundamentally right. And yet he goes a step too far in saying that people "never need to speak of the Bible as their authority nor do they speak of their submission to the Bible" (p. 93). Such a statement does not fit with the repeated phrase "it is written" in the NT. The scripture is appealed to as an authority; it is the definitive word in all matters of faith and practice. Naturally obedience should be a delight, and yet obedience is still demanded. Even in Paul, commands play a significant role. See for instance the helpful treatise on this issue by Wolfgang Schrage, Die konkreten Einzelgebote in paulinischen Paränese: Ein Beitrag zur neutestamentlichen Ethik. Human beings should submit to scripture, even if they do not wish to do so. Of course, such obedience should be a delight and not merely a duty, but it is still a duty. Furthermore, Jesus himself emphasizes in the Gospel of John that he was sent to do the Father's will, that he received a command as to what he should do (John 12:49-50), and that he always obeyed his Father. Naturally, he delighted in obeying the Father (John 15:10-11), but such obedience was also demanded (John 14:31). Along the same lines McKnight rightly remarks that marriage is about much more than headship and submission, and that too many conservatives become fixated on these themes, so that submission is virtually all they talk about when it comes to marriage. I agree. That happens. Nevertheless, authority and submission are still an important dimension in Christian marriage and should not be written out of the script.
1The brevity of the book does not fully account for the omissions here, for the matters addressed could have been sketched in rather briefly.
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