I’ve been reading (well, listening to, actually, on my MP3 player) Brian McLaren’s book, A Generous Orthodoxy. McLaren is a leader in the Emerging Church movement and is an engaging writer and speaker. I found D.A. Carson’s review of McLaren’s writings in Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, 158-182, to be fair and perceptive. Carson evidently thinks that McLaren, in his generosity, is giving too much away. I’m inclined to agree with him. Anyway, here’s a summary of Carson’s comments.
Describing himself as having been brought up as an ultra-conservative Christian, McLaren acknowledges that he is being harder on conservative Protestants than on those from other traditions. Although he cites Scripture – Pr 27:6 – in favour of this, his repeated painting of all confessional evangelicalism with the narrowness of the most conservative wing suggests an unhelpul over-reaction.
McLaren has a chapter on ‘The Seven Jesuses I Have Known’. These are
- the conservative Protestant
- the Pentecostal/Charismatic
- the Roman Catholic
- the Eastern Orthodox
- the liberal Protestant
- the Anabaptist
- the Jesus of the oppressed
Most of these portraits do not deliver what they promise. For example, the Roman Catholic Jesus ‘saves the church by rising from the dead’. This theme is played into caring, giving, serving, sacrifice and so on as if these were specifically Catholic virtues; and it is also played into the Eucharist, which is ‘a constant celebration of good news, a continual rendezvous with the risen Christ and, through him, with God’, even though none of this is distinctively Roman Catholic.With reference to the liberal Jesus, McLaren quotes the old slogan, ‘Scratch the paint of a liberal, and you’ll find an alienated fundamentalist underneath.’ But, although this may apply to some individuals, it does not accurately represent the relationship between liberalism and fundamentalism. Fundamentalism was a response to the kind of unbelief that denied the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, and the physical resurrection of Jesus, but still thought of itself as Christian because it still espoused some elements of Christian ethics. McLaren prefers a liberalism that disbelieves the miracle stories of the Gospels but seek to live out their meaning, to a fundamentalism that takes pride in believing that the miracles happened but don’t seek to live out their meaning. Apart from the false dichotomy set up here, is this true to Scripture? Is the feeding of the five thousand, for example, primarily about sharing one’s lunch? Is it not, rather, primarily about who Jesus is and what he did and can do? In any case, the liberal Christian heritage does not show itself to be more generous and self-sacrificial than the confessional heritage. It is the latter who are more likely to give generously, serve in touch places, build hospitals and schools, run shelters for battered women, and more.McLaren’s picture of liberalism does not square with the common liberal denial of the irreducible elements of the gospel itself, including the bodily resurrection of Jesus, 1 Cor 15.
The ‘pick and mix’ approach to different traditions fits the postmodern agenda neatly: different traditions read the source documents differently and experience God differently, and we can learn from all of them. But the real question is: To what extent do these traditions conform to the real Jesus, as presented in Scripture?
Evangelical. For McLaren, this is not with a big ‘E’ (‘the religious right’) but a small ‘e’. What he likes is the passion of evangelicalism. So, McLaren rejects any attempt to define evangelicalism that is tied to historical movements or to any belief system. This is perverse.
Biblical. For McLaren, biblical fidelity has to do with good deeds, transformation of character and conduct. It has nothing to do with questions of truth. McLaren asserts that the Bible is ‘the unfolding narrative of God at work in a violent, sinful world, calling people, beginning with Abraham, to a new way of life.’ Most Christians recognise that the Bible is not just a collection of proof texts, but contains both stories and a big story. But what McLaren and others seem to forget is that it also contains law, lament, instruction, reports, ethical injunctions, ritual and more. The easy appeal to the overarching narrative proves immensely distortive.
In any case, McLaren is deeply suspicious of any appeal to ‘metanarrative’. This is applied to the gospel. Whose gospel? The prosperity gospel? The full gospel? The fundamentalist gospel? The reformed gospel? What he offers us, of course, is his own version of the gospel. He can’t avoid it. That’s why he keeps writing books. And we are obliged to ask, of each version of the gospel, How faithful is it?
We cannot avoid the ‘truth’ question. McLaren has to concede this, if he is to be as dismissive as he is about the various ‘gospels’ he does not like. Of course, we do not claim infallible interpretations. We do claim to know some things truly, even if not omnisciently.
The Atonement. McLaren mentions varous theories of the atonement. Such as theory is ‘a possible explanation for how Jesus’ life and death play a role in the salvation of the human race.’ But for McLaren these theories cannot be doctrines. They are like windows, each of which lets you see part of the sky, but none lets you see the whole. McLaren tends to emphasise the alleged weak points in the various ‘theories’. For example, substitutionary atonement doesn’t answer the question of why, if God wants to forgive us, he doesn’t just do it. How can punishing an innocent person make things better? ‘That sounds like just one more injustice in the cosmic equation. It sounds like divine child abuse.’
One theory favoured by McLaren is the ‘powerful weakness’ theory: by becoming vulnerable on the cross, by accepting suffering rather than inflicting suffering, Jesus is showing God’s loving heart, which is one of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. But there is no attempt to ground this or any of the other ‘theories’ of atonement in Scripture. McLaren’s claim to be ‘biblical’ sounds rather hollow.
Hell. McLaren sets forth the prospect of heaven in sometimes moving terms. But when a question is asked about the alternative destiny, the reply is, ‘Why do you always need to ask that question? Isn’t what I just described to you enough?’ The answer is, of course, that it is not enough. Jesus himself says more about hell than anyone else in the Bible. There may be a few Elmer Gantrys around who take vicious delight in describing the torments of hell, but the danger today is not saying too much, but too little.
Numerous emerging leaders insist that the good news will focus on the importance of restoring one’s lost relationship with God rather than salvation from judgement. But the Bible dares to speak of the God’s wrath as well as his love.
Like other emergent leaders, McLaren tends to skirt a number of ethical hot potatoes, such as homosexuality. He credits liberals with having led the way on a variety of ethical issues, including treating homosexual and transgender persons with compassion. But the argument is weak. Scripture must not be tamed with regard to its teaching on homosexual behaviour. All persons, including homosexual persons, must be treated as people. Homophobia is inexcusable: but it may be that these days there is more danger of homophobia-phobia than homophobia. Responsible pastors receive death threats, hate mail, harassing phone calls, and disruption of public services, for saying no more than Scripture says.
It is doubtful whether liberals are actually leading in compassion? True, they are insisting that gay unions should be viewed as marriages, that gay men and women should be clergy, and so on. And their motives may well be bound up up with compassion. But should should not confuse compassion with unbelief and willful defiance of what God has said.
Post/Protestant. McLaren acknowledges that the Roman Catholic Church at the beginning of the C16 displayed some dreadful features, especially the sale of indulgences. But things have moved on, and Protestant churches themselves soon started protesting one another, eventually creating some market-driven, commodified forms of religion. Even their attention to the Bible has tended to fuel efforts to prove themselves right and others wrong. McLaren views himself, then, as a Protestant in the sense that he is committed to ‘pro-testifying’. But is commodified religion typical of protestantism? Surely not. And was the Reformation fundamentally about indulgences? No: the main issues were to do with authority, the locus of revelation, the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, and what it means to be saved by grace through faith. And the official statements and representatives of Catholicism are still strictly Tridentine.
McLaren thinks of himself as catholic, in the sense of exercising Christ-like acceptance. But the NT in Acts 15,Gal 2, 1 Jn 1 etc insists that doctrinal issues do matter, and that not eveyone who claims to be a Christian really is one. And it is not a catholic attitude, but rather one of lack of discernment and even defiance, to say otherwise.
McLaren finds a number of things about Catholic Christianity enriching: it is sacramental, liturgical, respects tradition, celebrates Mary, knows how to party, and can’t escape from its scandals. Slipperiness triumphs. For McLaren, ‘a sacrament is an object or practice that mediates the divine to humans.’ He prefers longer lists to short lists. Indeed, he thinks that the description of ‘sacramental’ can be extended almost indefinitely, to the smile of a Down’s syndrome child, the bouncy jubilation of a puppy, the graceful arch of a dancer’s back, the camera work of a fine film, good coffee, good wine, good friends, good conversation. He is right, of course, to assert that God’s universe should speak to us of God, prompt us to reflect on God, and mediate God’s grace to us. But he is wrong to refer to this as ‘sacramental’. Certainly, it is silly to suppose that this infinite extension of sacramentalism would be countenanced by the magisterial office of the Roman Catholic Church. McLaren admires Catholic Christianity because ‘Catholics celebrate Mary’. But Protestants too understand that Mary is highly favoured, that the Lord is with her, and that she is blessed among women. Catholic dogma insists that she was born without sin, and that she went to heaven in bodily form and thus avoided decay. Perhaps we should worry about people who have no respect for Mary. But we should worry at least as much about those who find in her a mediatrix, or address her in prayer because Christ himself seems to remote, or think of her as co-redemptrix with Christ and as Queen of Heaven.
Fundamentalist. McLaren describes himself as a fundamentalist in the sense that the fundamentals of the faith boil down to the command of Jesus to love God and to love our neighbours. But this is exceedingly shallow. Jesus presents these commandments Mk 12:28-34 as the two most important in the law, not as the fundamentals of the faith. Those who recognise what Jesus says are ‘not far from the kingdom’. And he has stated, two chapters earlier, about giving his live as a ransom for many, Mk 10:45. The Gospel of Mark, like the others, can be described as ‘a passion narrative with an extended introduction’, and Paul resolved to focus on ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’, 1 Cor 2:2, and determined to boast in nothing except the cross of his Lord, Gal 6:14. For McLaren to declare himself a ‘fundamentalist’ because for him the two great commandments are ‘the fundamentals of the faith’ is faithful neither to the historical the NT. McLaren says that there are two ways in which Calvin and his fellow-reformers can be honoured today: either defend and promote their post-medieval formulations, or follow their example in seeking to construct formulations of faith that are as fitting to our postmodern times as theirs were to their post-medieval times. Carson suggests that ‘this is a bit like saying that an American is not someone who adopts the heritage of American values…but someone who crosses an ocean to look for another country.’ However much Calvin and the other reformers may need to be critiqued at some points, at least they sought to make the Scriptures their formal principle and the gospel their material principle. To say that their theology was suitable for their times while postmodern theology is suitable for post-modern times is to avoid the truth-claims of Scripture, the givenness of revelation.
McLaren then hijacks the famous TULIP acronym for his own purposes:-
T = Triune Love
U = Unselfish Election
L = Limitless Reconciliation
I = Inspiring Grace
P = Passionate, Persistent Saints
Of course, McLaren has every right to believe and teach such things. But he has no right to suggest that they make him a fundamentalist or a Calvinist.