Each year the members of the Commission for Theological Integrity highlight a few of the books they have been reading over the past year. This year, I wanted to spend a little extra time discussing two books that have helped me think more clearly about my task as a theology professor at Welch College. Books on theological method aren’t always particularly exciting; nor, do they always feel particularly relevant to the church’s active ministry. However, a recent collaborative series by Scott McKnight and Hans Boersma does both.
Two recent companion volumes were published by IVP academic in a two-part series entitled, Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew by Scot McKnight and Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew by Hans Boersma, both published in late 2021. In evangelical theology, biblical studies and constructive theology have typically gone hand-in-hand. Both these volumes realize this interdependence on both disciplines. While biblical specialists and systematic theologians are trained separately and at times employ distinctive methodology, the evangelical tradition recognizes both as important. Unfortunately, too many evangelical biblical scholars take little notice of the theological impact of their study and too many theologians resort to a bare, biblical proof texting. In a world of academic silos, both authors work to speak on behalf of their discipline in an open and honest dialogue about theological method.
One of the reasons this series was so striking to me as I reflected on the material, was that I couldn’t help but think of pastors who in their ministry learn from both worlds. Pastors provide both biblical knowledge and theological relevance to their congregations week-by-week. The tools of their research, however, tend to be limited to only one sphere. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that while these two volumes were primarily meant for theologians and biblical scholars, the message was just as important for pastors who are practitioners of both disciplines. With that in mind I wanted to share some of the salient lessons from each work.
The constant question in both volumes is what the relationship between Scripture and tradition is. While both men embrace Scripture as the ultimate norm and foundation for Christian belief, they both also realize that our approach to Scripture comes in the context of a believing faith community and a tradition of theological interpretation that has been handed down to us. Thus, as we exegete Scripture we must always be mindful of our faith tradition in ways that serve to police our interpretation and challenge our theological blinders at the same time. It is a task that often leads to charges of biblicism on the one hand and eisegesis on the other. The balance is sometimes difficult to find.
As each volume is centered around five topics that serve as advice and counsel from one discipline to the other. While separate, the topics tend to build upon one another. For example, Scot McKnight lists the following:
- Theology needs a constant return to Scripture;
- Theology needs to know its impact on biblical studies;
- Theology needs historically shaped biblical studies;
- Theology needs more narrative;
- Theology needs to be lived theology.
What McKnight does admirably is to demonstrate the constant and consistent need for the theological process to be rooted and tied to Scripture. Unlike a bare biblicism, this approach recognizes the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the history of the Church’s creedal development and the central importance and guidance of a believing, faith community. Nevertheless, in the end all theology begins with Scripture because it is the only inspired and inerrant guide to truth. If theology does not begin in the truth of Scripture, it will never end in truth.
McKnight’s second and third topics are particularly helpful for ministerial and lay readers. It is too easy for conservative Christians to come to Scripture with a theological grid that limits what a text can and cannot mean. Such an approach mutes the voice of Scripture and fails to recognize it as the first word and the final word in the theological process. In the same way, modern readers are often not careful to understand that Scripture is temporally and culturally bound inasmuch as the events and teaching narrated there occurred in space and time. Thus, historical and cultural knowledge are indispensable aids in proper interpretation.
A particularly helpful piece of advice relates to the use of narrative. Scripture is replete with narrative and stories fill our lives and our newsfeeds. While Jesus often taught in parables, story rarely finds a place in theology. Theology should resonate with the overarching narrative of God’s redemption of a people for Godself. This is one of the reasons that I have so appreciated Robert Picirilli’s recent God in Eternity and Time because it follows a theological approach that seeks to trace the story of an infinite, timeless God engaging in creating and redeeming humanity in time and space. This narrative informs Picirilli’s work much in the way that McKnight is advocating.
Finally, McKnight reminds us that theology must be practical. Theology isn’t simply about what we know; it is about what we love, how much we love it, and how we behave. Theology must connect head, heart, and hands. As F. Leroy Forlines has said, theology is a world and life view that ultimately nurtures our relationship with God, with others, with the world around, and finally grants us a proper perspective on ourselves both as fallen and redeemed.
This eschatological reflection can also be found in Han’s Boersma’s work as he begins with Christ and ends in the restoration of all things with His return. While they read a bit differently, Boersma also provides five topics of refection from theology to biblical studies:
- No Christ, no Scripture;
- No Plato, no Scripture;
- No providence, no Scripture;
- No Church, no Scripture;
- No heaven, no Scripture.
By way of caution, Boersma approaches this discussion through a significantly more liturgical and sacramental lens than would most Free Will Baptists. This likely flows from his conservative, Anglican expertise in patristic exegesis and his advocacy for a spiritual or Christological reading of Scripture. His view of the Church and its role in contextualizing Scripture within the nexus of philosophical and cultural thought becomes more of an example of method than an elaboration of it. It is assumed throughout the work and this assumption will sometimes feel foreign to a Free Will Baptist reader. His emphasis on the role of Scripture and reading it along with the Church sometimes left me wondering if he had departed from the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. What is helpful is the perspective that the early church fathers clearly read the Old Testament with a Christological lens that was informed by the earliest kerygma of the Church. While this is helpful in clearly demonstrating that the Reformation principle of sola scriptura is not nuda scriptura, as Timothy George has rightly pointed out, Boersma takes this too far at times.
Nevertheless, as pastors reflect on their task of biblical exegesis and theological catechesis, the work proves helpful. He points out that the Christian tradition clearly demonstrates that our biblical study should lead us to a homiletical application that is always Christ-centered. I couldn’t help but think of Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching (an excellent homiletics text). He also clearly points out that the theological process is an application of metaphysics. While Scripture contains metaphysical concepts, the form isn’t by nature philosophical whereas theology often is. There is a balance here, but the realization is that clear biblical texts must be appropriately articulated with one another, and philosophy helps us in this task.
Boersma goes on to argue that the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church helps to guide its correct understanding of God’s text to us. His emphasis is upon the corporate role of the Church in exegesis as opposed to the individual interpreter. While I think Boersma pushes this concept beyond its limit, it is a helpful reminder that the God who went to such lengths to inspire an inerrant, infallible text would preserve the text and its meaning. Ultimately, Scripture provides the norm for the cultivation of virtues in the Christian life and must fulfill its formative purpose. The Church supplements and encourages the application of Scripture to life through centering its services and ministry on the Word of God and enacting these principles through church discipline. Scripture cannot be correctly interpreted without eschatologically seeing its ultimate divine goal of a changed, renewed, and restored people of God. Boersma provides a robust critique of liberation theology while still managing to give voice to the Church’s role in redeeming society through the power of Scripture.
While both volumes are well-written and helpful in different ways, the McKnight text surpasses that of Boersma. McKnight’s emphasis on Scripture as the bedrock of theological method will remind Free Will Baptist readers of the type of theological method they see at work in their own theologians like F. Leroy Forlines, Robert Picirilli, and Matthew Pinson. McKnight will feel more comfortable, but Boersma’s challenges will aid Free Will Baptist readers in refining their understanding of the Church’s role in the interpretation and application of Scripture.