Interview with Scot McKnight

Here’s the text of an interview I did with Scot McKnight when he was in Dublin for the IBI Summer Institute that I’ve now had time to edit from a recording (thanks to Clare for transcribing!). Comments and discussion, as ever, welcome.

PM         Scot, you are here in Ireland talking about ‘The Earliest Christian Gospel’ (which will be a new book In the Beginning was the Gospel). In the last couple of days you’ve unpacked the pretty provocative thesis that the ‘traditional evangelical gospel’ has distorted the biblical gospel. Can you summarise your argument in a nutshell?

SMcK     Now I’m going to spill the beans. I think Tom Wright got this right; we equate the word ‘gospel’ with our understanding of the ‘plan of salvation’ which means ‘how I personally can respond to the offer of salvation in Christ’. I think most evangelicals think that is the gospel.

Well, as a result of studying the New Testament, I became convinced that there are dimensions of what Paul thinks is the gospel and of what the early apostles in the book of Acts preach as the gospel that simply are not a part of how we preach the gospel. For instance, they were very much focused on resurrection. They didn’t focus on us being sinners and our need to accept Jesus’ death. Instead they proclaimed that Israel’s story (the hope of the Bible story) is now fulfilled in Jesus as Messiah and Lord through his life, through his death, through his resurrection, through his exaltation, through the sending of the Spirit. This is the good news that God has now wrapped up history. If we want to participate in this good news and get salvation we must repent and believe and be baptised. That was their understanding of the gospel.

I think our traditional evangelical gospel touches on some of those dimensions but there are many aspects that we have simply ignored in Western evangelicalism. In many ways I think we have thinned the gospel down to a superficial level and I want to create a conversation about what the apostles actually said the gospel was.

PM         Can I ask you about another conversation in which you were very involved – that of the emerging church? As you look back, what did that conversation achieve and where is it now?

SMcK     The word emerging is really on the decline. Some people still use it but different words have started to appear; we use missional, we use incarnational.

The central concern of the emerging movement was largely a criticism of the evangelical church for its lack of a holistic gospel and its obsession with personal salvation (and I don’t want to minimise personal salvation) to the neglect of justice and kingdom ministry in the world.

I think that the emerging movement has had and will continue to have a profound impact on American evangelicalisms in the sense that justice is important to evangelical Christianity. Twenty years ago it was fairly rare that you would see evangelical churches deeply committed to any kind of compassionate justice ministry. Today you will see the majority of evangelical churches, particularly in suburbs and inner cities, deeply committed to justice and compassion ministries and I think this is part of the emerging movement.

Now the emerging movement has kind of splintered. Five years ago I was asked what will happen and I said three things: 1. It will have a big and permanent impact on evangelicalism. 2. Some people will move back to traditional evangelicalism. I think that this has happened and that’s kind of my own story. 3. A third group will move more towards liberal mainline Protestantism and I think that this also has clearly been the case.

So while the debate about ‘emerging’ may be over, I don’t think the concerns of the emerging movement are going to go away. In fact, I see them in Tom Wright, in Chris Wright, in Alan Hirsch, in Michael Frost, in Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Paggitt, Rob Bell – all those people and others. You see Bill Hybels committed to justice in ways previously you didn’t see. I see these people committed to a larger sense of what the church can be doing in a community.

PM         In The Blue Parakeet you talk extensively about women in ministry. Why is this issue important to you?

SMcK     This is a really good question Patrick. I think it’s important to me for a couple of reasons. Number one is that in the past I’ve had female students (and I dedicate this book to one of them, Cheryl Hatch) who were really fantastic thinkers, sharp communicators and godly Christians gifted by God to teach but could find no place to teach.

Number two, is that it is a debate that I felt I should join. In the past I’ve had some colleagues that were really strong against women teachers and I respected them and I thought as a young professor ‘That’s not a battle I want to fight right now.’ And I developed the idea that women don’t need men defending them, it’s patronising. So I stayed out of the conversation. But over time I became convinced by women that women needed male voices speaking on their behalf because men listen to men better than they listen to women.

I have so many female students who are gifted and I encourage them I use their gifts in the church. I’m convinced that the Bible has so much evidence of women in actual ministry that conflicts with the restriction of women in ministry in our churches today. I like to ask a very simple question: ‘Do you allow in your churches women to do what women did in the pages of the Bible?’ If you do, you’re being biblical and if you don’t you’re being unbiblical. In the Bible women can teach (like Priscilla), they can be apostles (like Junia), they can prophesy, they can publicly pray – all these things occurred in the pages of the New Testament, not to mention prophets like Huldah, a prophet-singer like Miriam and a queen of the land like Deborah. In the pages of the Bible we have plenty of evidence of women in leadership.

PM         It’s hard to talk to you without mentioning Jesus Creed. What have been some of the benefits of blogging personally and spiritually?

SMcK     I had really no idea what I was doing at the beginning. The big thing that happened is it became a ministry. It wasn’t just a blog and it wasn’t to promote my books, it was a natural instinct to me to jot out ideas and have kind of extended classroom conversations.

Since then it has become a thing in itself. We’re probably going to get about 2.5 million page views this year. I never imagined that this could happen and never imagined the number of pastors who write me letters and with whom I’ve become friends. I think it’s flourished at the hand of God and I am thankful for it.

PM         You’ve shifted in recent years deliberately to engage with people outside the academic world in terms moving from seminary to engage with undergrad students and in your writing to engage with a wider Christian audience. What were the reasons for that shift?

SMcK     I don’t know that my shift from seminary teaching to college teaching was a desire to be more to reach a wider audience. The reason to move from a seminary to a college was complex; it wasn’t just a simple answer. I caught a vision from another professor that instead of teaching the pastors he was teaching lay people. I thought ‘I think I am more suited and gifted to do that’.

But the writing came out of a profound experience. I began to realise in talking to pastors in the United States and to Christians in churches as I travelled around, that they had no idea of what was going on in the academic world. We believed as academic professors in seminaries that if we would pass on our ideas to pastors they would pass them on to lay people. But I came to a solid conviction the trickledown theory of education doesn’t work. So I began to start paying attention to who is having an impact on the church and it was people who were writing to lay people rather than who were writing for seminary. So I decided that I wanted to make a Jesus book relevant to lay people and it was really hard work. I had to learn to re-write: clarifying, pace and single ideas for a chapter, no need to prove anything just explain it. And so The Jesus Creed book was written and that was really the beginning of my experiment of writing for lay people. I feel like I’m called to speak to ordinary people in the church. Some of my stuff is also more pastor level but I don’t feel any big urge to write just academic books although I think I’ve demonstrated that I can do that.

PM         Embracing Grace and your upcoming book One Life being examples of writing for the church?

SMcK     I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve gotten and I sort of chide some of my fellow evangelicals in the United States that before they write for the guild they should learn to write for the church. It will make them better writers in the church but it will also mean that they have an accountability to the church rather than just writing arcane journal articles that no one is ever going to read. I think we’re called to the church and not just to the academy.

PM         You’ve said Embracing Grace was one of your favourite books. Why?

SMcK     I felt that this book in some ways was my Mere Christianity. I read two or three pages of C.S. Lewis every day before I wrote Embracing Grace in which I’m trying to explain the fullness of salvation in the pages of the Bible for a lay audience. There is a lot of my life that came to fruition in that book: a lot of thinking; a lot of teaching; a lot of studying. I like that book; I think it explains the gospel of salvation in its holistic way.

PM         Jesus Creed, Praying with the Church, Fasting, your own regular use of The Book of Common Prayer all show your concern for integration of spiritual disciplines within life. How have these books grown out of your own spiritual development?

SMcK     A little bit of a beef I have with the spiritual formation movement in the United States is that it focuses too much on disciplines – that if you practice the disciplines you’re spiritual. I think Jesus did not define spirituality by discipline but by being people who love God and love others and so is fundamentally about relationships.

I began to use prayer books partly because I was dissatisfied with my prayer life and partly because I was asked to write a book on prayer. I’m convinced that God gave us the book of Psalms as a prayer book. Prayer book traditions of the Church supplement the Psalms so I started reading them.

I was on a quest for about a year to learn all the prayer books and I spent a month in each prayer book using it for a month and I’ve since used The Book of Common Prayer a lot. Right now we are using the new Paraclete Psalter, a beautiful book. Being asked to write books on prayer and on fasting was an opportunity I think the Lord gave me to produce some ideas on paper that could help the church. I want to help people understand the value of using set prayers at set times to encourage their prayer life and the number of encouraging letters I’ve had about the prayer book is really phenomenal. On fasting, I want people to get away from the idea that we only fast to convince God of our earnestness. I don’t think that’s what fasting means in the Bible.

PM         In your 2008 book The Blue Parakeet you’ve said that we need to read the Bible with tradition instead of through tradition. Can you just expand on what you mean?

SMcK     This is a tricky idea because there it’s a spectrum rather than a category; a category is a little different. Very clearly some of my faithful, devoted and observant Roman Catholic theologian friends read the Bible largely through the lens of the orthodox teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. I have other friends who are Eastern Orthodox and they will just right up front say ‘This is what the church believes so this is how you are supposed to read it’. I value those traditions. I think the history of the church is a goldmine of spirituality and theological genius but in the end I’m an evangelical Christian who believes in the Bible. So I believe that the final norm, the ‘norming norm’ as Kevin Vanhoozer calls it, is Scripture.

But while I can try to read it on my own so that God speaks to me, I also want to know how God has spoken in the history of the Church. I have a respect for the Church and Regula Fide (Rule of faith) that grew into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. So I want to read the Bible in a way that is faithful to what God has clearly taught the leaders and the guides and the theologians of the Church. So I try to read the commentaries that teach me of the richness of the Church tradition.

PM         Philip Jenkins in his book New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South has a really interesting comment on how James is the most popular NT book in Africa because as wisdom literature it speaks right into African culture. You’ve got a commentary coming out soon on James. What are some things we in the West need to hear a fresh from James?

SMcK     First, I like your use of the word wisdom – I think James presents a remarkable example of wisdom. Wisdom is to absorb with reverence the tradition that you inherit and to be able to discern how is speaks into a new context. There is no book in the New Testament that echoes the teaching of Jesus more than the book of James. There is only one citation where he explicitly seems to be quoting Jesus and he doesn’t mention it. I think this is a brilliant example of how James was so soaked in the teachings of Jesus that he knew how to ‘speak Jesus’ to his culture.

The second one of course is that James is relentlessly against the idea that faith can exist without good works and deeds of compassion. I sound like the King James Version here but evidence of pure religion and being undefiled before God the Father is this to look after orphans, to care for widows in their distress and to keep oneself unspotted by the world. James believes that genuine religion is deeds of mercy for those in need. There is nothing difficult about exegeting that verse but it’s difficult to live. It is a good reminder for us.

PM         You’ve been at times in the middle of a certain amount of controversy and conflict with the neo-Reformed movement. Some people have said you have caricatured or been too harsh in your criticism.

SMcK     I’ve been hard on them but I’ve really only been hard on them about one thing and that is that they think evangelicalism must be neo-Reformed and if you’re not neo-Reformed you’re not a part of real evangelicalism. I want to fight for ‘big tent evangelicalism’ – an ecumenical evangelicalism.

There is no-one more Reformed in American theology than Michael Horton. He is dead right that Reformed theology is about a local church and evangelicalism is bigger and broader than that – he called it the village green. Village green evangelicalism is committed to David Bebbington’s four big ideas – the Bible, the cross, conversion and an active Christian life. I think that is adequate for us to get along with and I want to fight for that.

However, there are certain voices in the neo-Reformed movement that want to call anything that is not Reformed non-evangelical or even heretical and I see that as schismatic. I think that this is something worth fighting about. I don’t do it very often, but every now and then I think it’s time to say something. In fact I sat on a post on ‘Big Tent Evangelicalism’ for three months before publishing it and it certainly was a couple a busy weeks on my blog. I lost some standing with some and gained some standing with others, but I think I was telling the truth.

PM         What would be one big future issue you see ‘coming down the pipe’ facing Christians in the West?

SMcK     I don’t think there is any question that the most significant issue that American and Western evangelicals are going to face in the next 25 years is Universalism.

I don’t know it’s happened all at once, but I think there are a lot of secret or at least semi-secret evangelicals who are more or less Universalists. However you want to enter into this conversation, I believe that Universalism is a threat to the significance of the gospel. I don’t believe the Bible teaches that everyone eventually will be saved. I will admit that I would love for that to be true but I don’t see it in the pages of the Bible. Universalism is an almost unavoidable instinct in modern culture which I’m finding with my students and with young pastors who candidly say that they are Universalists. So I think that it is a serious issue.

PM         How can people reading this interview pray for you?

SMcK     Well pray for wisdom; things to write about, things to focus on. I get opportunities to write and speak on all kinds of topics and sometimes you get torn and tossed in different directions. My studying and writing on gospel is coming close to an end and I’m not quite sure exactly where we’re going next. I have commentaries on the Sermon and the Mount and on Colossians to write and I have a couple of other areas of interest that I’m just going to see where the Lord leads me. Prayer for discernment and wisdom to make the best use of my research and writing time.

PM         Scot, thank you very much it has been a pleasure.

SMcK     Great to be here with you, Patrick.

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5 thoughts on “Interview with Scot McKnight

  1. Thanks for sharing this. Really enjoyed his line about the debate about ’emerging’ wrapping up but not the concerns of the movement going away.

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