Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Ancient Evangelical Future conference: Scot McKnight on stories of the Story

It's been a few weeks now since the Ancient Evangelical Future conference, and I've been distracted by various things like putting together our Christmas letter and sending out Christmas cards. But I wanted to post a little more about the conference before it got too far out. As it is, I'm working off of my notes, so forgive me if the following is a little fuzzy.

The second plenary speaker was Scot McKnight, who first talked about various approaches to reading Scripture; some project onto the Bible whatever they already think, like a Rorschach inkblot, while others view Scripture as a collection of decontextualized laws or blessings. He argued instead for an ancient-future model of understanding the Bible as a "Wikistory," in which there is "ongoing reworking of the biblical story by new authors who each tell the story in their own way." While there is one main Story, that Story is expressed in multiple ways, as is seen in the four different Gospels as well as in Paul's preaching and epistles and the other New Testament writers. John and Paul are different stories of the Story. McKnight said, "None is exhaustive, comprehensive or absolute," and that we need all of them together. He called this an exercise in "epistemic promiscuity."

In explicating this, McKnight took some shots at systematic theology as a discipline. He argued that "no one in the Bible is doing systematics." There's a freedom within the various biblical writers to use different "linguistic visions," like Jesus' use of "kingdom/basilea" in contrast to Paul's use of "church/ekklesia." McKnight posed a scenario asking, "Is it okay if Paul is a Calvinist and the author of Hebrews is Arminian?" He said that most systematicians work hard to resolve these kinds of seeming contradictions. But if we understand Paul and Hebrews to be different stories of the Story, we don't have to harmonize them or try to reconcile them. They are just doing their own versions of the Story, and each has a place in the larger picture.

During the panel discussion, systematic theologian Vince Bacote challenged McKnight's portrayal of systematics, saying that McKnight is unfairly painting a particular kind of systematic theology that many/most systematic theologians wouldn't hold to. Yes, some theologians construct so strict a system that any kind of perceived contradiction is explained away. But other theologians have room in their systematics for paradox and mystery. (It's probably significant that McKnight's lenses are that of biblical studies rather than systematic theology; the different disciplines have their own methodologies and tendencies.)

Another thing that came up during the panel discussion was whether McKnight was identifying the kingdom too closely with the church. McKnight said that he was responding in part to folks in the emergent conversation who (he says) "want to talk about what God is doing in the kingdom but don't want to talk about the church, as if the kingdom is something other than the church." McKnight was arguing that when Jesus talks about kingdom (especially in the synoptic Gospels), he's talking about his followers and his people. Panelist Howard Snyder, who has written extensively about church and kingdom, pushed back on McKnight and said that there are two equal and opposite errors here; one is to completely separate church and kingdom, and the other is to too closely equate the two. Snyder suggested that McKnight was reacting too much against one extreme and falling into the other.

I happened to find a copy of McKnight's The Story of the Christ at a thrift shop last weekend, and there he describes what Jesus meant by kingdom as God's "society." I think that's an interesting move, in that "society" both points to a personal community as well as a wider sociological phenomenon, like "culture." Talking about the kingdom of God as God's "society" feels better to me than merely equating kingdom with church, which feels too limiting. I want to hold a bit of a both/and here and affirm that God's kingdom encompasses the church and is surely closely tied to what God's people are doing as the church but also acknowledge that the kingdom is larger than what the church is doing and being. Surely the church itself awaits a fuller manifestation of the kingdom that comes as an inbreaking external to the church's own identity. Otherwise, what's the point of praying "thy kingdom come"?

At any rate, McKnight gave the conference much grist for discussion. He's certainly one of the leading voices in current conversations about the gospel, narrative, atonement and all the rest, and it was good to hear his take on the Story.

1 comment:

Heather said...

I like his approach to the gospels. After studying story structure, I realized that each pericope is in that order for a specific reason--to make connections like you would in a novel or memoir. When we try to put things into a chronological order, you take away the literary lessons.
I do need to think more on the Calvinist Paul and Arminian author of Hebrew, though.