Most recently I reviewed Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew, by Scot McKnight and Hans Boersma. I read that book and this book back-to-back. Given I have read several of McKnight’s books, I was eager to read this one. As I said before, I have always been interested in the relationship between biblical scholars and theologians. Having read my share of systematic theology books and having studied under a professor who had written his own four volumes on systematic theology (he has passed away), I have found myself analyzing the pros and cons of systematic theology. I get frustrated with those defending a specific “system” and then offering up various proof texts in Scripture to back up their system. And since we know the Bible isn’t a systematic theology, starting with a system such as Calvinism, covenant theology, dispensational theology, or a ecclesiastical tradition and attempting reading it back into the Bible is a risky endeavor.
As McKinght notes in the introduction, “People in my discipline, New Testament, sometimes don’t like to be called theologians, and at times we (or they) dismiss anything smacking of systematics. Systematic theology is a complete, coherent account of the Christian faith, broken into parts but unified and driven by the system at work. Biblical theology sticks to the Bible and to its categories, terms and limits.”- pg 1. Having said this, McKnight isn’t interested in bashing systematic theology at all. He does want biblical scholars and systematicians to be able to work together. McKnight wants systematicians to keep five topics in front of them: 1) a constant return to Scripture, 2), theology needs to know its impact on biblical studies, 3) theology needs historically shaped biblical studies, 4) theology needs more narrative, 5) theology needs to be lived theology- pg 13.
I will give a some highlights from some of these chapters. In the chapter “Theology Needs A Constant Return To Scripture (Ch 1), McKnight mentions the issues of biblicism which is a focus on the Bible and the Bible alone. The biblicist methodologically and intentionally brackets off the categories of the theologian. -pg. 39.
He notes some biblical scholars are perceived as not caring about theology, especially shaped by creeds and confessions.” -pg. 41. McKnight rightly mentions the work of sociologist Christian Smith who has offered some solutions for the charge of biblicism. Biblicism is criticized as leading to pervasive interpretive pluralism. Smith’s solution to the problem is a Christocentric or Christotelic reading of the Bible in which all things lead to Jesus and the other details fall by the waste side.- pg. 44. McKnight also mentions John Frame’s criticism’s of Smith’s work. As he notes Frame (and others) tend to read the Bible through confessions or creeds. For Frame, he reads the Bible through the Westminster Confession.
I personally think reding the Bible this way is a mistake. N.T. Wright discusses some of these issues in his book How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.
In the chapter “Theology Needs More Narrative” (Ch 4), McKnight notes that “Christians have a biblicist, prooftext-ish approach to Christian theology and so want theology organized by topics with Bible references and summaries that put into shape “what the Bible teaches about such-and-such.”- pg. 94. This is what many systematic theology textbooks attempt to do. McKnight notes Wayne Grudhem’s Systematic Theology which provides such a service. McKnight notes that when reading a systematic theology work, he asks questions such as “Where’s Israel, Abraham, David, Solomon, the exodus, exile, the land, etc.? He notes that in many cases, these works only have an emphasis on a “salvation plot.” They lack an emphasis on narrative. As he notes “God did not reveal a systematics, but instead spoke into history over time and in a diversity of ways through a myriad of persons and a myriad of locations and contexts.”- pg. 100.
In the chapter “Theology Needs to Be Lived Theology,” McKnight says that “IT IS NOT AN OVERSTATEMENT TO SAY one will be judged not by one’s theology, but by one’s life.”- pg. 116. He also says, “What one believes matters. But believing the right things isn’t good enough.” -pg. 116.
There’s no doubt that one could memorize and repeat creeds but have display little transformation in one’s practice.
I’ve seen that in recent years there has been a lot of discussion about the connection between orthodoxy (what Christians believe/right belief), and orthopraxis (how Christians are to live). These two orthos are intended to work in harmony with one another. Sadly, however, there seems to continually be a great tension between some Christians that tend to emphasize one side of this equation over the other. Some say those who that have solely focuses on orthodoxy (correct belief/doctrine), lack love and their witness isn’t what it needs to be. After all, if people have true beliefs, shouldn’t it match up with our living? The problem is no Christian will ever totally reflect the character of Jesus and they will fail at times to live out their faith. We aren’t in the glorified state yet. We are all in the process of sanctification (becoming like Jesus), in this present life.
After reading this chapter, I doubt any systematic theologian wants to write books without the hope that their work won’t lead to life transformation. I don’t think McKnight is accusing them of that. But I agree that trying to attain perfect beliefs through a deep study of systematic theology with the hope of perfectly nailing down every doctrine and neglecting how it leads to radical discipleship is problematic. Hopefully we teach and exhort people to make a sharp divide over orthodoxy/orthopraxy.
In the conclusion of the book McKnight says that, “if biblical scholars want to operate as doctors of the church, they will need to respect historical theological foundations found in creeds, but respect requires engagement and even challenging some points. If systematic theologians want to operate as doctors of the church, they will need to engage paradigm shifting contributions of biblical scholars.” – pg. 150.
I do agree with this conclusion and have seen many systematicians don’t welcome paradigm shifting approaches to the study of the Bible. It is true that paradigms can be so strong they act as psychological filters – we quite literally see the world through our paradigms. Any data that exists in the real world (or even in the Bible) that does not fit our paradigm will have a difficult time getting through our filters.
In the end, I appreciated resonated with this book a little more with this book than Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew. But they are both worth your time.