Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew (Scot McKnight) - A Review

FIVE THINGS BIBLICAL SCHOLARS WISH THEOLOGIANS KNEW. By Scot McKnight. Foreword by Hans Boersma. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021. Xiii + 166 pages.

                The various theological disciplines often engage in turf wars. Biblical scholars lay out their perspectives on things and systematic theologians lay out theirs. The latter may try to take the biblical story and categorize things, hoping to make sense of what they read. They may or may not follow the Nicene Creed as a pattern. When they do this, they can cut things off. At the same time, biblical scholars can get caught in the minutiae of history and words. As a historical theologian, I'm averse to creating categories that are too tightly drawn. We historical theologians like to remind both biblical scholars and systematic theologians that they too have been formed by history. After all, there's a lot of space between the first century and the present. Therefore, who we are now and how we view the Bible has been influenced by the intervening historical moments.

                I write this as a preface to my reading of Scot McKnight's Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew, which is a counterpoint to Hans Boersma's Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew. I’ve read both books, but I’m focusing here on McKnight’s book. McKnight, a biblical scholar, wants the reader to know that while systemic theology can be helpful it can also distort things. He acknowledges that biblical scholars and systematic theologians tend to stick within their disciplines, protecting turf and getting defensive when the other steps on their turf. The goal of these books, it appears, is to build a bridge of understanding so that both can do their work a bit better, as well as contribute to the greater good of the church.

                I've read several of Scot's (I’m going to use his first name from here out) books over the years and have had conversations with him. I don't always agree with his take on things, but I respect his work and find him thought-provoking. Such is the case here. I'm not a biblical scholar but as a historical theologian and pastor, I'm also not a full-fledged systematician. That may be due in part to my training in theology. My theology professor, Colin Brown, made it clear that no system is perfect and so he encouraged us to form our own theology by drawing on Scripture, history, and contemporary contributions (at least that’s how I remember his message). I credit him for my theological eclecticism. So, it's with that vision that I read Scot's book.

                The five things he introduces here are, for the most part, right on the money. I should note that I come from a non-creedal denomination with restorationist roots (Disciples of Christ). My tradition tends to jump over history to the New Testament. In other words, we would be ripe for embracing Scot’s message since we're not given to embracing systems (though we've created them—it's too easy to prooftext things even without a creed).

                The five things he offers us begins with the declaration that "Theology Needs a Constant Return to Scripture." With that, I agree wholeheartedly. I believe that was what Karl Barth intended, though his followers may tend to read Scripture through a Barthian lens. But the point is, Christian theology must begin with Scripture even if we read Scripture through various lenses.

                Secondly, he writes that "Theology Needs to Know Its Impact on Biblical Studies." Here Scot admits that biblical scholars, though hesitant about the impact of theologians, need to listen to theology, including the creeds as they contribute to the life of the church. This is seen in the way Christology is understood. Here he takes us from James Dunn's Christology through Larry Hurtado's to Richard Baukhams, showing how each one offers a deeper vision of Christ's identity. Then he notes the works of people like Wesley Hill, who discover within the New Testament signs of the Trinity, signs that do require a theological lens. Thus, there is a reason for integrating the two disciplines (again I agree).

                From there we move to "Theology Needs Historically Shaped Biblical Studies." Here Scot reminds theologians that they need to recognize historical context. How does the faith emerge and develop? What can the study of Scripture by biblical scholars contribute to this effort? Here he brings into the picture the work of John Barclay on grace as gift, which overturns much Protestant theology of grace. We root our view of grace in Scripture, but have we truly understood how this was understood in Scripture? By attending to this work, we may derive a different perspective.

                The fourth thing he does is call for the introduction of more narrative into theology. This is a reminder that a good portion of the Bible is comprised of narrative. To understand and communicate this message, we would be wise to attend to that narrative and find ways of doing theology in this way. Too often theologians take the Bible and try to fit it into a procrustean bed of preconceived categories. This can do injustice to the message. Preachers have come to understand this, at least some have. Theologians would be wise to consider it as well.

                Finally, he offers a fifth thing, which has to do with the importance of lived theology. Sometimes we get into a debate about what comes first—orthodoxy (right belief) or orthopraxy (right actions). The fact is, our theology has little value if it isn't embodied and lived out. Thus, ethics is central to the conversation, and Scripture emphasizes the way we live before God. So, as we see in the biblical narrative, what we believe and how we live are inseparable. Thus, we are to be doers and not mere hearers of the word. In this chapter, he shares how five theologians have sought to connect the two, as well as focusing on the centrality of Romans 12:1-2 to the structure of Romans. This passage speaks of us presenting our bodies as living sacrifices. He suggests that we might be wise to read Romans through the lens of Romans 12. In fact, he suggests we read backward from Romans 12-16. That is, if we're to truly understand what Paul is up to in Romans. The point here is that true theology is embodied.

                Scot concludes by confessing that he'll never be completely comfortable with systematic theology. Nevertheless, he recognizes the value that it brings to the conversation. He's just wary of how systems emerge and distort scripture. Thus, the need for conversation. I agree with this as well. Sometimes I read biblical scholars and get lost in the minutiae of Greek and Hebrew words and their etymologies. In the end, I go away with little of value.  I’m a pastor and historian and not a biblical scholar. Thus, theology helps me make sense of things. It’s one of the reasons why I enjoy reading commentaries in the Belief and Interpretation series. Nevertheless, I also know that systematic theology can distort and deform what we find in Scripture. As Scot notes, sometimes theologians are stuck in older interpretations of Scripture and would benefit from learning anew from more recent work.

                Scot's Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew is a relatively short book. It’s accessible. Thus, it’s helpful. The five things shouldn’t be controversial. I think we can all affirm their truth. Of the two books in this series, I will say that this was the more helpful. I say that as a theologian and biblical scholar! I’ll leave it up to other readers to decide about the two, but I think this speaks good words worth hearing.