Over the last two days I had the opportunity to go to Laidlaw College’s “Mission of the Church in the 21st Century” conference, which featured Scot McKnight.
Instead of regurgitating my notes, I figured I’d write about my personal response, particularly to McKnight’s content. So, here are some scattered thoughts on a fascinating couple of days…
Scot McKnight is one of my favourite biblical scholars, I think because he’s so accessible. I can understand what he is saying! This was reinforced at the conference. He was immensely engaging, and without a doubt the funniest Christian academic I’ve heard.
In his first address, he contended that we are using the biblical word “Kingdom” in ways the New Testament doesn’t, and that the word is more synonymous with the word “church” than the generalised good works which we often ascribe it to.
In his second address, McKnight gave a very clear and concise overview of the New Perspective on Paul, and then explored how it gives us theological resources for multiculturalism.
McKnight’s third address explored the biblical meaning of the words “love” and “grace” in contrast to cultural, and sometimes, he contended, misguided theological understandings.
My thoughts are going to assume some familiarity with the above terms and debates, so my apologies for that. If you’re interested, McKnight’s first talk, at least, is available for free on iTunes (under the title “General Session 3 – Leadership Conference 2013” from New Life Conferences).
- I thought McKnight put his finger on something when it comes to how we understand the Kingdom of God. I don’t mean this so much in regards to his linguistic point with the word Kingdom (I don’t have the training to know if his point was well made or not), but more in his general observation that we have tended to turn “doing nice things for people” into the be all and end all, sometimes at the expense of evangelism, and often in a way completely disconnected from being the Church. Of course, there is plenty of discussion that could be had on what “being the Church” actually means, but I think his critique here is timely.
- McKnight suggested that our cultural understanding of love is basically that of a dopamine reaction in the brain. If we want to love each other as the bible commands us, he said, we need to see love as a “rugged commitment” to be with and for each other. This was a brilliant and prophetic point.
- I’ve read a decent amount on the New Perspective, and I still feel like it can be difficult to understand. McKnight conveyed the main points of it so clearly, in the space of about 10 minutes. I found this so helpful. Plus, his use of illustrations and metaphors was masterful.
I’m really glad that I got to hear Scot in person. I even got to meet him, briefly. He is very, very sharp, so I feel quite unqualified to offer a critique! However, there were a few things which I didn’t find completely convincing…
- McKnight is an Anabaptist, and I have to admit that I’ve never found that theological stream compelling. I find its view of the world just a little bit depressing, in fact. McKnight was skeptical, for example, about whether a person could maintain their Christian integrity and at the same time be involved in the political process. I would side more with Tom Wright on issues like this; I believe God does work through us to transform culture. I think we need to be realistic about potential change, particularly because of sin, but I am not completely pessimistic. Needless to say, the times that McKnight’s Anabaptism surfaced were the times I was least convinced.
- I am increasingly coming to think that theologians and biblical scholars can risk overstating differences and developments. I mention this particularly in relation to the New Perspective, (and I think Tom Wright is far more guilty of it than McKnight), but it was there at times nonetheless. It falls far short of the straw man fallacy, but often there can be an overstatement to provide rhetorical weight. I should mention that I’ve personally found the NPP extremely helpful. For example, the corrective that Judaism was not actually a works-righteousness religion, and the increased emphasis on the welcoming of the Gentiles in to the covenant people. I see this all through Paul’s writing now, and I agree with McKnight that this is a fantastic resource for multiculturalism! But I also disagree that that means we completely jettison the idea of works righteousness. It may not be what Judaism was all about, but isn’t it still an aspect of human nature to try to win God’s favour through “being good”? I certainly see that in myself and in others. So, all that to say that I prefer to see the NPP as a helpful broadening of our understanding, rather than something which supersedes the “old” perspective. I wonder if some chronological humility is required here.
On a personal note, in terms of my own theological journey, something I found interesting was how in these sorts of spaces, I increasingly feel intractably Reformed. I certainly don’t mean in a slavishly 5 point Calvinist sort of way, but more that the likes of John Stott, Abraham Kuyper, James K.A. Smith, Thomas Torrance, and (yikes) even John Calvin provide the frames of reference which most resonate with me. They help me process and make sense of what’s being said, and they feel like home. Maybe I’m getting more set in my ways as I get older?
But, it’s great to have someone like McKnight visit that home too, even if he tries to rearrange the furniture! I learn a lot through the process.