Category Archives: Scot McKnight

The Bible as Constitution

Scot McKnight is blogging on Jack Balkin’s book on constitutional law, Living Originalism, and the potential for comparing constitutional reasoning with Biblical hermeneutics.

Traditionally, this comparison has always been difficult for me because those who make it almost always leap to the conclusion that the Bible should be read like a statute. In this comparison, God is the “legislature” and the Bible is is “statute.”

The problem that the traditional approach has posed for me is that the Bible (with the exception of a few chapters in the Torah) quite clearly isn’t intended to be anything like a statute. Its a collection of stories about people and their experiences (or lack thereof) of God. Scot, however, takes a slightly different approach to the subject that I find much more intriguing.

Scot sketches his argument fairly broadly/quickly, so I can’t be sure I’m folloiwng him completely. However, it goes something like this:

First, Scot seems to imply that its not quite correct to look at the Bible itself as a law book or a constitution. Rather, the Bible, or more accurately, the New Testament, can be seen as an effort to interpret/understand the gospel within a specific cultural context. The gospel – i.e., the enunciation that “Jesus is Lord” – can thus be compared to a constitution because it claims authority and then sets out some broad parameters which must be interpreted and re-interpreted in varoius contexts.

The New Testament books, then (and this is the part that intrigues me), are essentially the first efforts at “interpreting” and applying that gospel to particular circumstances, much like case law would function to determine the meaning of the constitution in the context of, say, a modern-day civil or reproductive rights dispute.

Scot also emphasizes that the gospel has to be contextualized and interpreted in light of the story of Israel and Jesus and the Church. Again, there are some interesting parallels to this observation in the way case law develops its own “story” over time.

Even though I’ve generally resisted the comparison between Biblical hermeneutics and law, I’ve always had a feeling that what I was doing from 9-5 bore some resemblance to what I was trying to do for Sunday school classes, speaking engagements, and blog posts during the nights and weekends. Now I have a little better idea of why.

Having said that, I think this comparison is valuable mainly because of the similarities between the interpretive processes. In other words, working out what “gospel” means in 2012 is much like working out what “prohibiting the free exercise of religion” looks like 2012. Beyond that, the comparison begins to break down. In particular, I see these problems:

  1. A constitution tends to work in CONSTRICTIVE ways (i.e., government can do these things and ONLY THESE THINGS) whereas the gospel is EXPANSIVE by nature (i.e., it is about mission, not limitations).
  2. The gospel works from the “bottom up” (i.e., it asks us to serve and sacrifice) whereas the constitution provides “top down” authority (The gentiles “Lord it over” each other, Jesus once told his disciples, but not so with you).
  3. The gospel advances in subversive and non-violent ways, whereas a constitution will allow for, and even demand, that forceful means be utilized to defend its ongoing authority.

As such, I think some caution needs to be applied in making this comparison.

Those are a few quick thoughts on Scot’s suggestion. Any one else want to weigh in on the subject? How does the comparison strike non-lawyers? Does it make you nervous that it could cause a drift into legalism?

More on Soul-Sorting

Scot McKnight has been blogging (here, here, and here) about Brian McLaren’s description of the “conventional” reading of the Bible, which characterizes it as a story about soul-sorting. My own review of McLaren’s chapter on this subject, which gives a little more detail about the subject of soul-sorting, is here.

McKnight is convinced that few people are actually teaching a soul-sorting narrative, and he begs to differ with those (I am presuming many of them, his students) who claim that they have encountered soul-sorting narratives in the past. He says that, in fact, soul-sorting is not what they were taught, and that evangelicals’ presentation of their “plan of salvation” isn’t related to soul-sorting.

While I don’t doubt McKnight’s sincerity, I’m somewhat befuddled by the way he approaches the subject. From where I have stood during the last 20 years or so, the gospel presentation of fundamentalist and evangelical culture has been saturated with a consistent message: “what you do in this life, and what you believe, will determine where you spend eternity.” To me, you just can’t get away from it.

That, as best I can tell, is what McLaren is characterizing as “soul-sorting.” It is a  view of salvation (sometimes characterized as a “thanatocentric” view) which holds that the ultimate and all-important issue relating to our life in this world is whether we do, say, or believe the things that get us “into heaven” because, if we don’t, we will end up in hell.

As I said, its just baffling to me that McKnight doesn’t see that. I’m sure I’m missing something here, maybe something that another careful review of his posts would reveal, but I just don’t get where he’s coming from on this one.

I do think that McKnight is correct, at the end of his third post, to point out that – while some of us think of the conventional message as “soul sorting,” not everyone does, and that it is important to be sensitive to those who don’t share McLaren’s perspective.


Update: I didn't realize this when I posted, but McLaren has joined in on the conversation on Scot's final post. Some really good discussion there. Follow the link above to check it out.

Social Justice and Extreme Libertarianism

Scot McKnight at the Jesus Creed is pushing back at recent remarks by the son of Jerry Falwell, suggesting that Jesus' teachings that we should help the poor does not include "socialism" – which Falwell seems to roughly define as any act where money is taken by one class of people and given to another. Falwell seems to say that individuals should help the poor, but not governments – a form of extreme libertarianism.

In his post, McKnight quotes several Biblical texts which show that "charity" was never left up to the individual, and I think he sketches out a reasonable argument against extreme libertarianism.

Having said that, I do have some concern that conservative economic values are  left behind in discussions about social justice and Christianity, and I think that reasonable, conservative voices could play an important role in those conversations. For example, I think there is a need to be cautious about creating dependency relationships with people that the Church is trying to "help." Also, I wonder if a lot of the frustration that is being experienced by the Glenn Beck crowd is because they perceive that discussions about social justice are ultimately little more than an endorsement of liberal politics.

I'd like to come back and comment a little more on this later, but – in the meantime – anyone else have thoughts on the subject? Do conservative economic values have an important role to play in conversations about social justice?