January 8, 2009
Scot McKnight: Bible Maestros
The Bible has multiple books with multiple authors for a reason.
The great Reformer Martin Luther famously found the letter of James to be a strawy epistle because, in his judgment, it did not teach enough Christ or faith or grace. It had too much law for him. Most of us have forgiven Luther for overcooking his confidence, but he illustrates how many of us often read the Bible. We fasten upon a "maestro" ? and Luther's maestro was clearly the Apostle Paul ? and make the rest of the Bible fall in line with our maestro's lens of interpretation. Let me trade a moment in a few stereotypes.
Protestant liberals, Anabaptists, and Red Letter Christians have all made Jesus the maestro of their Bible reading. Everything is seen through the angle of the words "kingdom" and social justice as "discipleship." We are tempted, of course, to forgive anyone who makes Jesus their maestro, but the wisdom of God in giving us a canon - a list of 27 books that included Paul and Peter and John and Hebrews and Jude - which renders making even Jesus the maestro suspect.
Conservative evangelicals and the (strongly) Reformed have made Paul their maestro, at times a bit like Luther. In their view the rest of the Bible either anticipates or clarifies "justification by faith" and "soteriology" and "grace." Paul's theology, it must be admitted, is gloriously rich and his categories breathtakingly clear and the implications profound. But the wisdom of God was to give us a bundle of books and a bundle of authors. A fully biblical approach to reading the Bible reads and accepts each author and each book.
Maestro Bible reading is an alluring temptation for a number of reasons:
-It is simpler to master one author and let the others chime in where they fit;
-It is safer to have it all figured out;
-It is more challenging to work out our faith when we invite multiple voices to the table;
-It is easier to fit into our church tradition if we just let the tradition shape what we believe, and many traditions are shaped by maestro Bible readings.
But we must guard ourselves against the temptation to make one biblical author our maestro.
In college my favorite Bible teacher was a man named Joe Crawford. He once told me that though Calvin was a Calvinist, when it came to his commentaries he let the text say what it said. Apart from a few lapses from this principle (and apart from the timeliness of his concerns), I have found my teacher's observation about Calvin to be true. And I would hope the same is true about us today.
Recently my friend Lincoln Hurst, a New Testament scholar, passed away too soon. His greatest contribution to biblical studies was an act of love for his teacher. Lincoln completed, when his teacher also died too soon, G.B. Caird's marvelous New Testament Theology. The genius of that volume was the imaginary invitation of each of the authors of the New Testament to the table to give an account of their understanding of the gospel and theology. (Except that the voice of James, under the influence of the Reformers, was rarely heard.) The genius of Caird's approach is to emphasize and relish the admirable diversity of New Testament theology. For Caird there was to be no maestro.
Two observations flow from avoiding the maestro approach and inviting to the table all the "theologies" of the Bible. First, language can only do so much and the one thing that it can't do is capture the fullness of God's truth in one set of images. As you can't describe a mountain from one angle, so you can't describe the gospel with one term ? Jesus' "kingdom" or Paul's "justification" or John's "eternal life" or Hebrews' "priesthood." It is an act of violence upon John to force him into the mold of Paul. The more voices the merrier, God must be saying.
Second, the diversity of the New Testament provides a model for us today: we need to invite more voices to the table than we have in the past. A colleague of mine who teaches across the street at North Park Theological Seminary, Soong-Chan Rah, has a book about to come out from IVP called The Next Evangelicalism. His contention is that there is a white, Western captivity of the evangelical church in America. If he's right, and I have no solid reasons to think he's wrong, we are in need of a G.B. Caird model for doing evangelical theology. If we can put away our maestro approaches long enough to invite others to the table ? African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, and both genders ?we might hear the gospel better and offer to our world a more complete depiction of what God is doing in this world. Call it kingdom or church or justification or eternal life. I suspect we might need each of these terms and more if we are to speak the gospel well to that next evangelicalism.