A new series of blog posts on theology and method will begin on March 26. the lead post will be “Where Do We Stand? Postmodernism, The Emergent Church, and Apostolics.”
McKnight, Scot. The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008. 236 pp.
The Blue Parakeet cannot carry a tune and should not be one’s first or primary book on hermeneutics. If one is a student of hermeneutics, the book may be valuable as another voice in the conversation. Otherwise, there are many other books that are more helpful to Apostolics.
McKnight spends a considerable amount of time discussing the fact that everyone who reads the Bible picks and chooses which parts of the Bible he wants to obey. To support this thought, McKnight cites several portions of Scripture that different groups interpret differently, including passages from the Mosaic Law including agricultural and clothing laws. With no attempt to assist the reader in understanding the differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament or between clear cultural inferences and timeless doctrinal imperatives, McKnight sets out to tell readers the proper method for picking and choosing. McKnight’s solution is a hermeneutic of story and discernment.
We should read the Bible as story and not as a list of propositions. If we lose sight of the overall story the Bible is trying to communicate, we will miss its purpose and effectiveness in our lives. This is a worthy point, but McKnight’s application of this principle goes too far. He claims that “the Story” is being retold over and over again throughout the Bible, just as we too retell story in our ways. The ramifications are obvious as history has shown: the story can fundamentally change over time. He repeatedly makes this statement: “God spoke in Moses’ days in Moses’ ways, and God spoke in Job’s days in Job’s ways, and God spoke in David’s days in David’s ways . . . and God spoke in Jesus’ days in Jesus’ ways, and God spoke in Peter’s days in Peter’s ways, and God spoke in Paul’s days in Paul’s ways, and God spoke in John’s days in John’s ways.”
There is some truth to this claim, but it ultimately falls short. The story is not being retold by the biblical writers, or else we would have the full story in Genesis as well as Ecclesiastes. It is more accurate to say the story is being unfolded in Scripture. The various writers in the Bible are adding to the story over time until the story becomes complete. Therefore one cannot get the full story from Jude or Genesis or Colossians or Jonah.
To be sure, we have the task of retelling the story in ways that are clear in whatever culture we preach, but McKnight is proposing a much more involved “retelling” of the story than this. His retelling allows us to pick and choose. So if the gospel is being understood in everybody’s days in everybody’s ways, then what about King Henry’s ways? What about Servetus’ ways? What about Martin Luther’s ways? This leads us full-circle back to the question: How do we understand the Bible?
Clearly there are difficult passages of Scripture (blue parakeets), and there are passages that are deeply rooted in the culture in which they were written. But McKnight offers no real guidance on how to read these passages. He even leaves issues of doctrine and morality in flux. Concerning premarital sex he says, “Most of us believe that premarital sexual intercourse is contrary to God’s will. The New Testament doesn’t say a thing about this” (118). McKnight thinks premarital sex is wrong (?), but he bases his view on the Old Testament and then raises a bunch of questions that leave the reader wondering if this prohibition is now outdated.
McKnight does offer some safeguards to keep interpreters from wandering too far from the text’s intent. He says that the church is to read with discernment, and this discernment should be with—not through—The Great Tradition, i.e., “what the church has always believed.” In other words, history has its place, but we do not comprehend Scripture through history; rather, we bring history alongside us and use it as a guide as we discern the meaning of the text for today. The church’s discernment becomes the highest authority, even in the face of clear biblical imperatives. This is a hermeneutic that looks to the future and what is beyond us. Apostolics have a hermeneutic that looks backward to see what is behind us, i.e., the apostles’ doctrine. These are two entirely different ways of reading Scripture.
McKnight’s hermeneutic of story and discernment is much more involved than merely appropriating Christian principles in various cultures throughout time. It has ramifications for doctrine. Concerning speaking with tongues, he essentially says it is up to everyone to decide for himself. “It is not my intent to resolve this issue either. Instead, we conclude on an important note: the pattern of discernment varies from age to age and from church to church and from person to person within a church” (141, emphasis in original).
McKnight’s definition of The Great Tradition should be troubling for many Christians: “We may learn to read the Bible for ourselves, but we must be responsible to what the church has always believed. We can reduce the Great Tradition to the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, and the importance of justification by faith from the Reformation” (31). This is so academically irresponsible it is hard to believe it was written or that the editorial staff at Zondervan let it stand.
Five of the fifteen chapters are devoted to the issue of women in ministry. He uses the issue as a case in point to apply his hermeneutic of reading Scripture as story and the discernment of the church, i.e., God spoke in Paul’s and Peter’s days in those ways, and God is speaking today in our ways.
Interestingly, McKnight does very little discerning in this regard. After reading the first ten chapters, I expected McKnight to say, “God spoke to Paul and Peter in those days, but he is speaking to us in our days. Go ordain women.” But this is not his approach. Rather than using the hermeneutic that he developed in ten chapters, he reverted to a very traditional grammatical-historical hermeneutic to show how women have been involved in God’s story. He looks at details from both Testaments, spending quite a bit of time on Paul and Peter. He also shows the fallacy of the perennial claim that God only used women when men were not available. After cataloging all the ways God used women in both Testaments, McKnight makes a very compelling argument for women in ministry with the following question: “Do you permit women to do in your churches what women did in the Bible and in the early churches?” (164). That is a very good question for Apostolics who hold to a restorationist hermeneutic. Whether you agree or disagree with women serving in ministry, these five chapters are the book’s greatest contribution.
The point is that McKnight reverts to a grammatical-historical hermeneutic when he deals with what is presumably his most troubling issue. If this is the case, then why do we need his hermeneutic of story and discernment?
A new series of blog posts on theology and method will begin on March 25. The lead post will be “Where Do We Stand? Postmodernism, The Emergent Church, and Apostolics.”
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