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Pulse
21 November 2022

One of the most influential voices in the Progressive Christianity movement is that of Brian McLaren, whose many books have waxed eloquent on why historic Christianity must be abandoned.

Among them, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith (2011) stands out as a clear – if radical – restatement of some of the major teachings of historic Christianity.

These ten questions are:

  • The narrative question: What is the overarching story of the Bible?
  • The authority question: How should the Bible be understood?
  • The God question: Is God violent?
  • The Jesus question: Who is Jesus and why is it important?
  • The Gospel question: What is the Gospel?
  • The Church question: What do we do about the church?
  • The sex question: Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
  • The future question: Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
  • The pluralism question: How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
  • The what-do-we-do-now question: How can we translate our quest into action?

McLaren, who served as a pastor for some years before becoming a full-time author and speaker, insists that the way in which historic Christianity has answered these questions must be subjected to rigorous critique.

He believes that how we respond to these ten questions ‘have the potential simultaneously to weaken old, rigid paradigms and to help us imagine new and better possibilities.’

McLaren believes that the old paradigms – namely, historic Christianity – are shaped by Greek philosophy and the social and political narrative of the Roman Empire. The Bible, properly read, he insists, tells a very different story.

He writes:

God’s unfolding drama is not a narrative shaped by the six Greco-Roman lines of perfection, fall, condemnation, redemption, heavenly perfection and eternal perdition. It has a different storyline entirely.

The God of the six-line Greco-Roman framework, he asserts, is a ‘dread cosmic dictator’ and a ‘damnable idol.’

It is only when we disabuse ourselves of these strictures that we are able to fully appreciate what the Bible is about and what Jesus is about.

He invites his readers to join in the necessary quest for a new kind of Christianity. However, this quest can be successful only if we are willing to debunk the old schema in its entirety:

… this quest begins not by tweaking details of the conventional six-line narrative, but by calling the entire narrative scheme into question. We do not for a second say, ‘These six lines present the true shape of the biblical narrative, but we reject it.’ Rather, we stare at this narrative, scratch our heads and, with bewildered look, ask, ‘How in the world, how in God’s name, could anyone ever think this is the narrative of the Bible?’

It is tempting to review all these ten questions and what McLaren has to say in response to them. But space allows us to examine only two of them. However, the perceptive reader will very quickly discern the shape of McLaren’s revisionist Christianity from the discussion of these two questions.

HOW SHOULD THE BIBLE BE UNDERSTOOD?

We begin with the Bible. According to McLaren, it is impossible to envision a new kind of Christianity without also adopting a new approach to the Bible.

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul provides a comprehensive description of Scriptures as follows: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

The Church’s view of Scripture is grounded in the way in which Scripture defines itself. For example, the Westminster Confession of 1646 speaks of the sufficiency of Scripture thus:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men …

On the authority of Scripture, the Confession is equally clear:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God …

While stating that he resolutely believes in the importance of the Bible for the Christian community, McLaren nonetheless rejects historic Christianity’s understanding of Scripture as articulated in the Westminster Confession.

In fact, he seems to lay the abuses of the Bible at the door of the Reformation:

Ever since the leaders of the Reformation claimed sola scriptura – Scripture alone is enough! – we’ve had an avalanche of evidence that reasonably bright, sincere and well-meaning people can find just about anything in the Bible, not to mention the less bright, sincere and well-meaning.

Through a series of caricatures McLaren tries to show his readers that it is precisely this approach that has led Christians to totally misunderstand the Bible and its message.

According to McLaren, the traditional view of Scripture has led some Christians to treat the Bible ‘as a divinely dictated science textbook providing us with true information in all areas of life, including when and how the earth was created, what the shape of the earth is, what rotates around what in space, and so on.’

The traditional view has also led Christians to ‘read and use the Bible as a legal constitution.’ ‘As a result,’ McLaren writes, ‘we turn our Bible colleges and denominational bodies into versions of a Supreme Court.’

Furthermore, understanding the Bible in this way has already resulted in Christians using the Bible to justify all sorts of atrocities. McLaren discusses at length how pro-slavers have used the Bible to support the practice.

While some Christians have certainly misunderstood and misapplied the Bible in the way in which McLaren describes in his book, it is quite disingenuous of him to suggest that this is true for all Christians who hold the traditional view of Scripture. By tarring them with the same brush, McLaren has created a straw man, a distorting and misleading caricature.

What, then, is McLaren’s view of Scripture?

Readers who wait with bated breath for the architect of a new kind of Christianity to present a truly insightful and novel view of Scripture will be met with disappointment. For what is proposed as the alternative to the traditional view of the Bible is simply a rehash of the old liberal view, albeit dressed in a postmodern garb.

The Bible, according to McLaren, is just a human document, a ‘library of a culture and a community.’ He writes:

The biblical library … is a carefully selected group of ancient documents of paramount importance for people who want to understand and belong to a community of people who seek for God, and in particular, the God of Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets and Jesus.

McLaren does regard the Bible as ‘an inspired library [which] preserves, presents and inspires an ongoing vigorous conversation with and about God …’ However, it must be noted that when McLaren uses words like ‘inspiration’ and ‘revelation’, he empties them of their traditional meaning and injects his own.

For example, the Bible is inspired for McLaren in the sense that it stimulates conversations and keeps ‘people thinking and talking and arguing and seeking, across the continents and centuries …’

For him, the Bible is not an authoritative text whose author is God. Neither is it the ‘whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life’, which ought to be ‘believed and obeyed’ (Westminster Confession).

It is a human document that does not provide answers or ‘give the final word on controversies.’ It merely stimulates conversations.

JESUS CHRIST

How does McLaren understand what this ‘inspired library’ has to say about Jesus Christ?

Not surprisingly, McLaren insists that once the Bible is not read according to the dictates of the Greco-Roman schema, we get a very different picture of Jesus from the one presented by historic Christianity.

Predictably, McLaren radically reinterprets the orthodox doctrines of the incarnation and the deity of Christ – emptying them of their metaphysical content. They are reduced to figures of speech which are ‘are meant to tell us that we cannot start with a predetermined, set-in-stone idea of God derived from the Bible and extend that to Jesus.’

McLaren states that the figure of Jesus is ‘intended … to explode them [that is, our preconceived ideas of God derived from the Bible!], transform them, alter them for ever and bring us to a new evolutionary level in our understanding of God.’

In rejecting orthodox Christology, McLaren has no truck with the idea that Jesus came to save sinners from eternal damnation. For him, Jesus came to set us free from poverty, injustice and oppression and to teach us the way of love.

Jesus is compared to the Moses who liberated his people from Egyptian oppression. McLaren writes:

Moses led the way in liberation from Egyptian oppression, so Jesus leads the way in liberation from the social and spiritual oppression of his day.

McLaren’s Jesus looks very much like the Jesus of the old liberals, who has come merely to set an example for us to follow and inspire us to create a better society.

What about the salvation and eternal life that the New Testament talks about, and that are associated with faith in Jesus Christ (John 3:16; 3:36; Romans 10:9)?

McLaren again reinterprets these concepts by stripping them of their theological significance. Consider this remarkable paragraph, and the serious distortions it contains:

… Jesus’ offer of ‘life of the ages’ and ‘life abundant’ sparkle with new significance. When Jesus promises ‘life of the ages’ (a far better translation of the Greek zoein ainonian, I believe, than ‘eternal life’, the meaning of which is poorly framed in many minds by the six-line narrative), he is not promising ‘life after death’ or ‘life in eternal heaven instead of eternal hell’ (John, it should be noted, never mentions hell, a highly significant fact). Instead, Jesus is promising a life that transcends ‘life in the present age’, an age that is soon going to end in tumult. Being ‘born of God’ (1:13) and ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’ (3:3ff) would in this light mean being born into a new creation. So, again, Jesus is offering a life in the new Genesis, the new creation which is ‘of the ages’ – meaning it is part of God’s original creation, not simply part of current regimes, plots, kingdoms and economies created by humans ‘in the present evil age’ (a term Paul uses in Gal. 1:4).

What we are left with after McLaren’s radical deconstruction of orthodox soteriology and eschatology is liberalism’s vision of a this-worldly utopia. Jesus, he explains,

… came to announce a new kingdom, a new way of life, a new way of peace that carried good news to all people of every religion. A new kingdom is much bigger than a new religion, and in fact it has room for many religious traditions within it. This good news wasn’t simply about a new way to solve the religious problems of ontological fall and original sin (problems, remember once more, that arise within a different narrative altogether). It wasn’t simply information about how individual souls could leave earth, avoid hell and ascend to heaven after death. No: it was about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven for all people. It was about God’s faithful solidarity with all humanity in our suffering, oppression and evil. It was about God’s compassion and call to be reconciled with God and with one another – before death, on earth. It was a summons to rethink everything and enter a life of retraining as disciples and learners of a new way of life, citizens of the new kingdom.

This paragraph could just as well have been written by the liberal theologians of yesteryear such as Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1969), and John Shelby Spong (1931-2021).

CONCLUSION

Throughout the book we hear this refrain repeated again and again: the Church has got it wrong; it has forced Scripture into the Greco-Roman Procrustean bed; it has spectacularly misread the Bible.

Her theologians – Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth, etc – have all failed to realise this, and have instead perpetuated the fatal mistake.

Enter Brian McLaren and his friends, who alone are able to see the problem with such uncommon clarity. They have attempted to correct these grave errors by rejecting in toto the old framework, and by reimagining a new kind of Christianity.

Except that the new kind of Christianity that they are proposing is not new at all. It is at least 200 years old!

In fact, it is not even Christianity! It is another religion altogether! It is nothing more than the restatement of the old heresy of liberalism, with a postmodern twist.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.