Enough For What? A Review of Scot McKnight’s ‘The Bible is Not Enough’


Anne Kennedy

Article ID:



May 8, 2024


Feb 14, 2024

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Summary Critique

Scot McKnight

The Bible Is Not Enough:

Imagination and Making Peace in the Modern World

Fortress Press, 2023

The Bible is Not Enough: Imagination and Making Peace in the Modern World is a brief, elegantly bound reflection on what New Testament scholar Scott McKnight calls a “peaceful imagination.”1 Triggered by the expression “humane war” discussed in Samuel Moyn’s book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021), McKnight claims that American Christian preferences for war betray a “poverty of imagination.”2 Castigating Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and every president since,3 McKnight explains that “violence runs deep in American culture. America at war is part of its identity. Critics of the Right diminish the significance of the Christian nationalist movement that shook the country on January 6, 2021. One dare not. A second arising could be in the offing. Violence shifts from one dimension of culture to another, from war to gun possession to ordinary citizens packing heat to more humane forms of the death penalty to police violence and to military torture.”4 McKnight would like to correct this identity, specifically by calling those who read his book to the work of “improvisation,” that is, to take the words of Scripture and of Jesus and live them out in “virtuous kingdom character.”5

The Bible Is Not Enough is divided into five chapters: Poverty of Imagination, Prophetic Imagination, Kingdom Imagination, Improvisational Imagination, and Peaceful Imagination. McKnight’s argument is built around answering the objection that a “peaceful imagination” is “‘pacifist,’ as if that was a weak or dirty word.” Not so, he says. “A peaceful imagination is active in nonviolent resistance.”6 Furthermore, “There is no need to apologize for the term pacifism or to defend the view that it is activist, nonviolent resistance. The so-called temple tantrum of Jesus proves a peaceful imagination can be improvised in nonviolent disruption. A peaceful imagination is social disruption” (emphasis in original).7

What Is Improvisation? The two most pressing questions for me when confronted with the title The Bible Is Not Enough are, first, not enough for what? And second, not enough for whom? McKnight is cagey on these two points. Rather than coming out and saying something like, ‘The Bible won’t help you become the peacemaker you long to be,’ or ‘The Bible is insufficient unto salvation,’ and then explaining how or why, McKnight dwells upon the word “improvisation.” The Bible is full of important information about the character of Jesus and “the law,” but you can’t follow it as if it were some kind of definitive rule by which Christians ought to govern their lives. Even Jesus, according to McKnight, “improvised” the law as He taught His disciples.8

Not being particularly musical, artistic, or initiated into the world of the theater, I tripped over the term “improvisation.” What was McKnight talking about? First, I looked up “improvise” in the dictionary and came up with this very basic definition:

to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously

to make, invent, or arrange offhand

to make or fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand9

Not being enlightened as to how one might improvise with the Bible, I combed through McKnight’s endnotes, trying to discover whence the term originated. I found he referred in one single note to Samuel Wells’s Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. A brief publisher’s description of the book had this insight:

Wells establishes theatrical improvisation as a model for Christian ethics, a matter of “faithfully improvising on the Christian tradition.” He views the Bible not as a “script” but as a “training school” that shapes the habits and practices of the Christian community. Drawing on scriptural narratives and church history, Wells explains six practices that characterize both improvisation and Christian ethics. His model of improvisation reinforces the goal of Christian ethics — to teach Christians to “embody their faith in the practices of discipleship all the time.”10

This comports rather well with how McKnight sees Jesus’ interactions with the Mosaic law. He insists that Jesus interacted with the law in the long-standing Jewish tradition of improvisation. “We are not to assume,” he writes, “there was only one singular and controlled set of developments. The rabbis of the Mishnah did not speak for all Jews of all time.”11 Jesus created His own “kingdom-based improvisation of the law of Moses.”12 In some places, he was even “more stringent” than the Pharisees of His day. Be that as it may, no one should view “the law of Moses” as a “rigid code.” Rather, “It was a flexible instrument in need of improvisation.”13

Appealing to divorce as one of the most obvious examples of Christian “improvisation,” McKnight writes, “It appears that the law of divorce, as interpreted by Jesus, was originally quite rigorous. But it needed improvisation in at least two cases within the space of a generation or two.”14 Here I expect McKnight must be referring to the exhortation Paul offers in 1 Corinthians 7:14–15 regarding unbelieving spouses.

The basis for the way Jesus apparently took and shaped His own understanding of the law of Moses is best seen in the Sermon on the Mount. This was, McKnight says, “a kingdom-based improvisation.”15 We are invited into this same kind of relationship to the law of Moses and to the words of Jesus. “We can learn from Jesus,” he writes, “how we, today and tomorrow, can improvise both the law and the teachings of Jesus for our world.”16

Don’t Worry about It. McKnight leans into this way of reading the Scriptures in the stultifying and stale way that many other revisionist scholars and thinkers of the last century have done before him. If “improvisation” is indeed a new way, it is curious that it always leads straight back to a rejection of classical doctrinal fundamentals, like justification by faith in Jesus Christ. For, throughout the book, McKnight falls into the same error that many progressives do today, that is, thinking that the way into the kingdom of God is the human effort of loving God and loving neighbor.

The manner in which he falls into these errors, at least on the surface, seems not to be intentional. The lens through which he views the Christian life and the Christian Scriptures is a pacifistic one that diminishes the breadth and depth of human wickedness, thereby turning the cross into a matter of sacrificial discipleship, rather than an atoning sacrifice for sin. The follower of Jesus takes His suffering and death as a ”pattern,” emulating him by embracing suffering.17 This embrace of suffering is “the radical edge of Jesus’ kingdom vision and a radical reorientation for improvisation in our world today.”18 “Followers of Jesus,” who, in the words of the gospel of Luke, take up their crosses “daily” (Luke 9:23), “must be willing to ask if ‘humane’ war or aggressive Christian nationalism can ever be squared up with the something more Jesus asks of his followers, then or today.”19 Lacking, however, in McKnight’s short discourses on the cross is what that suffering and death achieved — the forgiveness of sins that enables the Holy Spirit to dwell in a newly clean heart, working, supernaturally, peace with God and peace with others.

Neglecting the atoning work of the cross enables Jesus to share McKnight’s political aesthetic. He writes:

Jesus, when asked by a legal expert which one of God’s 613 requirements was at the top of his list, made two central: love God and love others. Not by veering from the law of Moses but by a law-based hermeneutic of love. He combined, and in this he may have been the first to put them together in what could be called a creed-like manner, the Shema’s love for God with a Levitical demand to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Deut 6:5–9; Lev 19:18). Again, love is a covenanted, affective committed relationship with another person that involves presence, advocacy, and mutual growth in virtue (a kingdom ethic for Jesus). The something more here is something “new” in becoming the ruling commandment.20

Most Christians when they encounter any portion of the law, whether it be to love God with all one’s heart, mind, strength, and soul or to help a neighbor when his cow has fallen into a pit, find themselves coming up short. Classically, the law, which, by nature of it being a law given by God in His holy Word, and therefore immutable, unchanging, fixed, not open to fudging with, revealed that they could not keep it (Romans 3:19–20, 4:15, 7:7–11; Galatians 3:19–25). They were commanded to love and yet they did not. They were then in a heap of trouble. They had to ask God to do for them what they could not do. This asking for help was essentially an act of faith, of trust that God would do something the creature could not, by his own power, do.

Generations of Christians, when confronted with the words of Jesus, who, rather than making it easier, looked out upon the crowds and said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NIV), found they had only two choices. They could walk away and become His enemies, or they could throw themselves on His mercy and ask for help. The ones who asked for help became the “poor in spirit” who were enabled to enter the kingdom of God through His grace by the gift of faith.

McKnight doesn’t adopt this way of reading the text. Rather, when Jesus tells the crowds to “be perfect,” He is inviting them to both work harder, and yet also not to worry about it too much because Jesus doesn’t really expect anyone to be sinless:

Jesus then ties this loving-the-other way of life to one piercing word: perfect. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Let’s just hope we’re all right when we say Jesus didn’t mean sinlessness! After all, he’s Jewish: there’s the temple, there’s Yom Kippur, each of which displays profound awareness that all humans sin. No, Jesus means treating others the way the “heavenly Father” treats them, that is, by showering natural gifts on all, by loving all others.21 (emphasis in original)

I don’t like to disagree with so eminent a theologian, but given that Jesus set His face, like flint, for Jerusalem to die as the perfect sacrifice required to atone for the sins of the world, I don’t think the word “perfect” needs to be reinterpreted to suggest something more manageable — as “showering gifts on all” or “loving all others.” It is worth repeating that reducing Christ’s command to be perfect to a command to love — we are to love our enemies as God loves us — does nothing to mitigate our abject failure to love as He loves. Improvisation or not, the sinner is separated from God by sin and needs some way of being reunited with that holy and perfect One.

Peace Will Come. McKnight is chiefly incensed about how America and Americans engage in non-peaceful acts of violence both abroad and at home. Jesus, he explains, “embraced the peaceful imagination of the prophets.”22 The “peacemakers” in Matthew 5 are those “people who do acts that make for peace. These are the ones who will be called the children of God. His words cut against the grain of the zealous defense of nation, law, temple, and people.”23 If this seems vague, it gets worse. “One has to embrace peace,” he explains, “if one wants to improvise policies of peace with a peaceful imagination.”24 And, “An unimpeachable dimension of the earliest Christian movement and its record in the New Testament is that with Jesus something happened, and that something was new.”25

As I worked through The Bible Is Not Enough, I was bemused to discover that McKnight is quite rigid on certain points (e.g., the nature of peace) to such an extent that he is forced to express his discomfort with some texts in the Bible. The Revelation to John, for example, is, to put it mildly, blood-soaked. What is a scholar who rejects violence of any kind to do? Here is McKnight’s valiant effort to cope:

Revelation is taking some deserved hits today for its graphic violence, but the criticisms at times are based on a reading as literalistic as the literalists they deride. It takes an imagination, if not more, to comprehend the vision of peace in this book. The scope of its vision is clear enough: for New Jerusalem to be established, the Lamb must defeat the agents of the Dragon and its wild things. The salient features of John’s imagining of a final, lasting peace from the final two chapters of Revelation provide an adequate reprise of the book’s vision for peace.26

It’s nice of McKnight to find the biblical witness “adequate.” A synonym for “adequate” might be “enough.”

In Fact, the Bible Is No Help at All. For an academic in the sphere of Biblical Studies and ecclesial health to title a volume The Bible Is Not Enough amounts to an exercise in click-baiting. McKnight wants you to know that he is not like those other Bible-thumping evangelicals over there — the “fundamentalists.”27 Rather, he is the sort of Christian whose improvisational skills enable him to know the measure, shape, and scope of Christian peace in a fraught and divided world.

Rather than answering the questions, “enough for what?” and “enough for who?” or even to fairly engage with those who find, in the biblical text, a theory for just war, or justification for the death penalty, McKnight falls into the easy temptation to immanentize the eschaton. It is the Christian’s job to bring about peace on earth not by trusting in the Lord Jesus, but by the hard work of making the people who despise you into your friends. “For Jesus,” explains McKnight, “there are no enemies, only neighbors and potential neighbors, and his posture creates a peaceful imagination informed by love of God and love of others.”28 In fact, “one’s enemies are to be turned into neighbors by loving them.”29 The burden of accomplishing peace in the world rests on you. The Bible is there as a help, but only in so far as you use it to “improvise” your peacemaking efforts. Jesus’ “peaceful imagination,” which is wrought by individual Christians loving “God and others,” their “enemies,” and “serving others,” “form[s] the foundation for improvisation in our world today.”30 How might one do this? Easy, insists McKnight, “One person at a time. One day at a time. One neighborhood at a time. One community at a time. And, God willing, one nation at a time.”31

In a roundabout way, McKnight did answer my question, “not enough for what?” The Bible is inadequate for producing peace on earth in human terms, especially when what you mean by peace is “liberation, justice and material blessing, interpersonal harmony and health and economic justice,” and a way of life “that counters the way of violence and death.”32

You might have thought that humanity is stuck in intractable violence, degradation, and sorrow because Jesus said we would be until His return. The kingdoms of this world are committed to a zero-sum battle against the kingdom of God led by Jesus’ chief enemy, Satan. Jesus nevertheless said He would rescue His own and eventually triumph over all those who persist in rejecting His reign, and He will ultimately restore His creation when He comes again. If you thought all that, according to McKnight, you would be wrong. Rather, “the reason we are stuck in the ‘humane’ war and white Christian nationalism is in part because those who claim most to follow Jesus lack a peaceful imagination that can shake systemic structures of violence and war to the ground.”33 If you disagree with him, you are the problem. Worse, you must not “presume the Bible said all that was to be said about any legal or moral concern.” Rather, if we “take our Bibles seriously,” we will “affirm the core commandments while knowing they will require timely improvisations. The Bible’s view of the Bible’s own laws is that laws develop at the hands of God-honoring improvisers.”34

Lovers of the Holy Scriptures will, of course, know that there is only one way to accomplish peace. It is to accept the Lord Jesus as Savior, and then, through the help of the Holy Spirit, to carefully study the law, to meditate upon it in the night, to love it, to find the whole self reshaped by it because it is a true and unchanging reflection of who God is. If you take the Bible seriously, you will go deeper into its precepts and rules, you will find your heart and mind bend toward the kingdom of God. There indeed is life and peace. There is love. And there, also, is more than enough spiritual food for the weak and weary. The Bible is, in fact, enough to find the kind of peace that surpasses human, and sometimes even scholarly, understanding.

Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People, rev. ed. (Square Halo Books, 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends on her Substack, Demotivations with Anne.


  1. Scot McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough: Imagination and Making Peace in the Modern World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2023), 7.
  2. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 1.
  3. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 2.
  4. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 4.
  5. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 75.
  6. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 8.
  7. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 8.
  8. See McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 43ff.
  9. Merriam-Webster Dictionary Entry, “Improvise,” accessed January 30, 2024 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/improvising.
  10. Internet Archive Book Cover, Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004), https://archive.org/details/improvisationdra0000well/page/n243/mode/2up.
  11. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 47.
  12. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 43.
  13. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 48.
  14. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 49.
  15. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 43.
  16. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 43.
  17. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 39.
  18. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 38.
  19. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 41.
  20. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 56.
  21. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 60.
  22. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 18.
  23. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 18.
  24. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 20.
  25. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 23.
  26. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 20.
  27. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 10.
  28. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 36
  29. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 34.
  30. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 75.
  31. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 75.
  32. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 21.
  33. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 21–22.
  34. McKnight, The Bible Is Not Enough, 51.
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