Cover Image: Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew

Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew

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This review is a follow-up on the complementary volume from my previous review, that theology and biblical studies should complement rather than compete against each other. After all, they help the rest of us understand biblical truth more deeply. Theologian Hans Boersma's tongue-in-cheek foreword subtly maintains the supremacy of systematic theology over biblical theology. He even brands biblical scholars like Scot McKnight as more theological than what most people might have perceived. What he is saying is that McKnight's views put him on the same side as his own. In endorsing this book, Boersma is even saying that at the end of it all, both biblical and dogmatic theology affirms the fundamentals of orthodox Christianity: Christ is present sacramentally (theological) in the biblical texts (biblical scholarship). This sets the stage for a grand pushback by eminent biblical scholar, Scot McKnight. Arguing that the task of a biblical scholar is more difficult, McKnight points out the nature of biblical studies which is to take ourselves away from our contemporary viewpoints to immerse ourselves into the biblical texts. Such a task is immensely more challenging. His central point: "All theology must start at the exegetical level."  

Just like Boersma who had listed five things for biblical scholars, McKnight pushes forth five things to help theologians begin within the confines of the biblical texts. His five points are:

1) Theology needs 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, and 
5) Theology needs to be lived theology.

The biggest difference between systematic and biblical theology is in terms of the method adopted. The first point drives home the entire frame of argument, that everything must begin with Scripture. This forms the root that sprouts the trunks, branches, and twigs of the theological tree. He also distinguishes biblical scholarship from biblicism, something that should be required reading for all, especially those coming from a fundamentalist form of literal interpretation. On his second point, he takes on a more reconciliatory tone, confessing the need for theologians to help biblical scholars read the Bible well, before arriving at a compromise, that both disciplines need to be integrated. He calls for more coordination among scholars from both disciplines, citing four recent works in which both disciplines could benefit from such an initiative. Describing the need for a "history of theology," his fourth point is an excellent blending to arrive at a nuanced understanding of theology that combines the best of systematic and biblical theologies. Finally, he reminds all of us that theology, regardless of whether it is biblical or dogmatic must be lived out in practice. 

With his 40 years of teaching experience, McKnight begins with a brief definition of some of the more technical terms used. He distinguishes systematic theology from biblical theology before showing us how systematic theology gets its inspiration from good biblical studies. For instance, systematic theologians tend to begin with creeds and dogmas while biblical theologians prefer to begin with biblical revelation rather than modern theologians' views. He highlights how one scholar learns to read Paul through the lens of Barth instead of the revered apostle. McKnight pushes back by saying systematic theology is "seductive" 

My Thoughts
I think McKnight's perspectives are listed more as a plea for greater cooperation rather than a polemic against systematic theology. As one who is well-read in many branches of theology, he is able to see both strengths and weaknesses from both disciplines. In quite a few chapters, he expresses open invitations to scholars from both sides to do more to help foster teamwork and cooperation toward patching up holes in both disciplines. This is what scholarship ought to be, where theologians and biblical scholars both honour and critique each other's works, not for puffing one up but with constructive criticisms that build up. We are all in the same boat. A good theologian will be welcoming of biblical perspectives to help shore up the knowledge of the Truth. Likewise, a credible biblical scholar will humbly acknowledge the need for the various theological perspectives in learning more about what the Bible is teaching. In this sense, the title of the book is a bit misleading, probably labelled as a catchy headline for prospective buyers.

That said, I believe McKnight is spot on when he maintains that all theology must begin with Scripture. Sometimes, even while we recite our creeds about sola scriptura, we often lack the ability to distinguish between biblicism and biblical theology. Perhaps, with McKnight's able explanation, there will be more who would be open to the promises of biblical theology, and be willing to use that as a starting point. At the end of the day, I believe that this book and its companion volume by Boersma highlight the needs of both biblical scholars and theologians all over, to take each other's disciplines with more openness and humility. From the where that both writers have written, I believe both of them while wanting to push their primary areas of disciplines are well aware that they need each other. I applaud this community of scholarship that reflects the ethos of Regent College, that "takes relationships seriously, seeking to understand and live them in light of our biblical and theological commitments." Both Boersma and McKnight's works have demonstrated that well. 

I commend McKnights contribution and warmly recommends this book and its companion volume for readers to read, to study, and to buy an additional copy for friends.

Scot McKnight (PhD, University of Nottingham) is a professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. He is the author of many books, including Reading Romans Backwards, Pastor Paul, The King Jesus Gospel, and commentaries on James, Galatians, and 1 Peter. He is also the coeditor of the Story of God commentary series and general editor of the forthcoming second edition of the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.

This book has been provided courtesy of InterVarsity Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.
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Let me begin with this statement: This book is clearly not for all readers.

Now let me explain this.

Scot McKnight is an incredible author. His thoughts and the way he delineates them have helped me in great ways across multiple topics. I do not discredit this. And in this light he does a great job expressing the “5 things” to his readers.

However, perhaps as expected, I found the book very dry and far to intellectual for the common reader. It’s not to say there isn’t great merit behind this writing because there is and I found great value in the pages of the book, I simply found the great amount of detail within the chapters to be difficult to digest.

On a positive note, the writing is incredibly sourced, stays true to its function, and is always honest with its approach. Not once did I find it defensive to Scot’s personal leaning and I was intrigued by many of the statements made within. My personal favourite was the chapter/thought that theology needs to be lived out. I think this is the biggest take away for me.

As to who I would recommend this book to: only those interested in a very detailed and well thought out explanation of what theologians are missing in their approach to study. Again it is very well researched and thoughts are expressed well, but with a lot of detail and sometimes long running chapters. Be prepared for a marathon at times.

Having completed this book I am now interested in what it’s counterpart will have to say “5 things theologians wish biblical scholars knew.”

*I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. These are my personal thoughts.
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McKnight writes from the position of a Biblical Scholar to challenge theologians to a greater level of interaction with Scripture and in particular, integration with the narrative arc of Scripture. This is high level academic writing that I believe will be most useful to those in the academy, especially Theologians. I found Boersma's partner book to this one to have a broader and warmer application. As a Church leader I found myself resonating most strongly in the final chapter on Praxis - "Theology needs to be lived theology". My favourite quote from the book: "Theology abstracted from ethics or from lived theology is not biblical theology. Ancient Israel's theology was as integrated into ethics as its ethics was integrated into its theology. The two are inseparable."
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“I was reading Katherine Sonderegger’s ‘Systematic theology’ as this book was in its final edits. I love it and get irritated by it at the same time.” - Scot McKnight

This portion from the conclusion made me laugh. A) because this was my experience with THIS book, and B) of course it was because the mentioned title by Sonderegger is one of my all time favorites. 

Basically, there were a lot of things I appreciated and even agreed with in this book, however, at the same time, I found it frustrating and kind of dry. I couldn’t necessarily put my finger on what it was that bothered me so much during the reading, and when I look back I made a ton of bookmarks, but as a theologian (in academia) I do feel like my reaction proves why this book and it’s companion are necessary. There is a divide. A divide in language, outlook, and address. 

“At times, of course, this is because of the erudition of the scholars - only specialists can absorb Lewis Ayres’s ’Nicaea and Its legacy’  and make sense of every paragraph - but also at times this is because of the third, fourth, and fifth levels of conversation, in which so-and-so said one thing, and so-and-so added to it, and then so-and-so revised it, and now we know that revision needed some fine-tuning by a book others were ignoring... and so on, until one enters the rooms and wonders what’s being talked about. ( I know, I know, systematicians feel this way about erudite discussions of Greek tenses and exegetical nuances. We all at times resort to Mona Lisa smiles).” p. 96

With the exception that I am actually quite comfortable with erudite Greek tenses, I did feel like I “Mona Lisa’d” the heck out of this book. I probably need to read it again, and I will, but I don’t look forward to it in the manner that I wish to re-read it’s brother from a theologian’s perspective. This is part of the problem these books are addressing, I reiterate. The divide needs to be crossed, and this is a good start, 

A big thank you to NetGalley and IVP Academic for this ARC and forcing me to ponder this academic/disciplinary divide until September when I can get the print copies and read, as I prefer, with a marker in hand. I hope by then the phrase “avoid some their avoidance” has found an appropriate synonym.
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It's common to see different kinds of scholars squabble, less common to see them looking for what they can learn from each other. McKnight working with another scholar to see what they wish each other's disciple understood creates a new model, critique mixed with community and a shared desire to do things better.
A bit dry and definitely a book for academics, but quite good.
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