How To Apply The Bible (well, sort of!)

Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, Chapter 9: “The Year of Living Jesus-ly” & Chapter 10: “Finding the Pattern of Discernment

As we read our Bibles, we can listen carefully but we still have to figure out the best way to discern how best to follow the commands of the Bible. While God never changes we can see from the Bible that His will does change with the person and over time. God didn’t call the brothers Moses and Aaron to the same life. God’s commands on how to relate to people not in the same covenant with Him changed throughout the Bible.  That leads to a series of questions we have to ask: “How do we know which of these commandments change and which ones don’t?  How do we choose?  Who gets to choose?” (117)

McKnight has already argued earlier in the book that all people “pick and choose from” or “adopt and adapt” what they read in the Bible.  No one attempts to follow the Bible with hyper-literalism.  We don’t put to death sexually immoral church members.  So how do we discern what and how to follow the Bible?

McKnight proposes that the best way to figure out the pattern of discernment that we use is to look for how the Spirit and our church tradition helps us to place a passage in the overall Story of the Bible and to apply this passage to our world today, not yesterday or two thousand years ago.  It might also be helpful to ask why we do not do what a passage literally says to do.  

What we can be guaranteed is that the process of discerning how best to apply the Bible will be messy.  Any attempt to make it less messy will likely make the Bible something it wasn’t intended to be, like a law book (see this post on what else McKnight thinks the Bible was never intended to be).  These are some patterns McKnight sees in Christians today that reveal how we have chosen to discern the message of the Bible for today’s world:

  1. We look below the surface to the reasons underlying a decision or behavior and see if that reason is acceptable (i.e., divorce and remarriage).
  2. We have changed our views because can see how there is theological development throughout the Bible (i.e., circumcision).
  3. We say that there is a deeper, transcultural principle and that the specific enculturated expressions of those principles are not timeless (i.e., female fashion styles).
  4. We say that there has been a development in science or understanding that allows us to explain and relate to something differently (i.e., an earth-centered versus sun-centered way of seeing the physical universe).
  5. We acknowledge that the degree to which a passage still applies today is shaped by our own varying backgrounds (i.e., speaking in tongues).

I sense this was the most important chapter in the first, more conceptual part of the book.  Unfortunately, I feel like McKnight’s points were a bit too vague and general to be as helpful as he would have liked.  It was also not clear what we were supposed to do with this list above unless it was just another way to show that all of us “adopt and adapt” the Bible and do so in different ways.

He becomes clearer by the end of the long chapter 10 proposing that we follow the example of Paul who let the simple gospel message shape all he did.  Paul’s greatest desire was to find the way to operate in his circumstances that would advance the gospel the most.  Consider what he said in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.  To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

The Story stayed the same but how Paul went about living it out was different given the circumstances.  That ends up being messy, but it opens one up to being responsive to the Holy Spirit.

Adaptability and development are woven into the very fabric of the Bible.  From beginning to end there is a pattern of adopting and adapting.  It is the attempt to foist one person’s days and ways on everyone’s days and ways that quenched the Holy Spirit.  Can we be biblical if we fail to be as adaptable as the Bible itself was — only for our world?  Is this messy? Sometimes it is. . . . All genuine biblical faith takes the gospel message and “incarnates” it in a context. . . . The precise expression of the gospel or the manner of living of Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Ezra, Jesus, Peter, and Paul may not be our expression or our manner of living.  Living out the Bible means living out the Bible in our day and in our way by discerning together how God would have us live.  We can be firmer: it is unlikely, since it is clear that each of these persons adapted the Plot and the Story for their day, that their message or manner of life will be precisely the same as our message and our manner of life.  We are called, as they were, to learn the Plot and the Story, to listen to God, and to discern what to say and how to live in our day in our own way.  We will speak to our world only when we unleash the gospel so that it can speak in our day in our ways. (p.143)

I really like these ideas when expressed in this general way.  It is when we start running specific religious questions or topics through these general suggestions that I am left wondering if my logic is sound.

For instance, let’s apply McKnight’s suggestions to baptism.  It seems rather clear to many Christians from many diverse denominational backgrounds that the baptism mentioned in the New Testament was done by dunking adults in water at their own confession of faith in such a way that it symbolized the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. But that is not the world we live in today.  We now have baptism done with great genuineness in a multiplicity of ways and times.  Is the deeper principle of baptism only that we are expressing our faith in a concrete, symbolic, public way thus the specific form does not matter so long as faith is expressed in these deeper ways?  Is it okay for us to have different views on whether the baptism of the Holy Spirit can happen independent of water baptism simply because we come from different backgrounds?  How do we make the Bible address sprinkling of babies and subsequent confirmation when we know this was a practice that developed several hundreds of years after the Bible was written?  Is this simply a theological development?  If a person believed into their sprinkling, is that form of the ritual enough?  Does confirmation basically do the same thing and thus is sufficient?  Is the transcultural principle only that baptism is supposed to symbolize burial and resurrection thus if that happens using dirt instead of water (as I know happens in extremely dry parts of Africa) is it equally acceptable?  If the redemptive Story becomes our guiding principle, wouldn’t any form that reenacts the death, burial and resurrection be fitting?

Bottomline: I would have liked McKnight to have given us more specific guidance on how best to discern the application of the Bible in specific situations.  I think we will see that becomes important in the next section of the book as he turns to the issue of women in ministry as a case study.