Monday, January 21, 2008

Who Will Stand Up and Sit This Guy Down?

OK, it's been a while, so strap on your seat belts!

I've been reading Brian McLaren's most recent book Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (2007). Mr. McLaren's audacity struck me even more in this book than usual and, while I can hardly do justice to the whole of the book (even in this unusually long post!), one aspect COMPELS me to respond.

McLaren argues that the Church has missed the point of the Gospel – not just American evangelicals, but all of Orthodox Christianity over the centuries. (I guess if you're going to take something on, you may as well go for broke!) His proposition, at least in part, is that our focus on individual salvation is wrong - or at least misguided. In seeking to demonstrate this, he contrasts historic orthodox Christianity (what he calls the “conventional” view) with the “emerging” view (which he clearly holds), and contrasts those views' answers to four questions foundational to the Gospel message. The following excerpts are his words, and I believe speak for themselves in terms of fairness, tone of “charity” and his feelings about our historic message. His questions - his responses. Let's take a Fox News look at this ("We report, you decide"):

The Human Situation: What is the story we find ourselves in?
Conventional View: God created the world as perfect, but because our primal ancestors, Adam and Eve, did not maintain the absolute perfection demanded by God, God has irrevocably determined that the entire universe and all it contains will be destroyed, and the souls of all human beings – except for those specifically exempted – will be forever punished for their imperfection in hell.*

* Of course, there are many modern Western nonreligious ontologies and framing stories too, plus Eastern ontologies and framing stories - both religious and irreligious.

Emerging View: God created the world as good, but human beings – as individuals, and as groups – have rebelled against God and filled the world with evil and injustice. God wants to save humanity and heal it from its sickness, but humanity is hopelessly lost and confused, like sheep without a shepherd, wandering further and further into lostness and danger. Left to themselves, human beings will spiral downward in sickness and evil.

Basic Questions: What questions did Jesus come to answer?
Conventional View: Since everyone is doomed to hell, Jesus seeks to answer one or both of these questions: How can individuals be saved from eternal punishment in hell and instead go to heaven after they die? How can God help individuals be happy and successful until then?

Emerging View: Since the human race is in such desperate trouble, Jesus seeks to answer this question: What must be done about the mess we’re in? The mess refers both to the general human condition and to its specific outworking among his contemporaries living under the domination by the Roman Empire and who were confused and conflicted as to what they should do to be liberated.

Jesus’ Message: How did Jesus respond to the crisis?
Conventional View: Jesus says, in essence, “If you want to be among those specifically qualified to escape being forever punished for your sins in hell, you must repent of your individual sins and believe that my Father punished me on the cross so he won’t have to punish you in hell. Only if you believe this will you go to heaven when the earth is destroyed and everyone else is banished to hell.”* This is the good news.

*This reflects a Calvinistic, evangelical, Protestant version of the message. The popular Roman Catholic version might say, “You must believe in the teachings of the church and follow its instructions, especially those regarding mortal sins and sacraments.” The popular mainline or liberal Protestant version is sometimes vague and difficult to pin down, but one version of it might be summarized in its most dilute form as, “God is nice and wants you to be nice too.”

Emerging View: Jesus says, in essence, “I have been sent by God with this good news – that God loves humanity, even in its lostness and sin. God graciously invites everyone and anyone to turn from his or her path and follow a new way. Trust me and become my disciple, and you will be transformed, and you will participate in the transformation of the world, which is possible, beginning right now.”* This is the good news.

* This experience of transformation is, in my view, related to what Jesus means by “the kingdom of God.”

Purpose of Jesus: Why is Jesus important?
Conventional View: Jesus came to solve the problem of “original sin,” meaning that he helps qualified individuals not to be sent to hell for their sin or imperfection. In a sense, Jesus saves these people from God, or more specifically, from the righteous wrath of God, which sinful human beings deserve because they have not perfectly fulfilled God’s just expectations, expressed in God’s moral laws. This escape from punishment is not something they earn or achieve, but rather a free gift they receive as an expression of God’s grace and love. Those who receive it enjoy a personal relationship with God and seek to serve and obey God, which produces a happier life on Earth and more rewards in heaven.

Emerging View: Jesus came to become the Savior of the world, meaning he came to save the earth and all it contains from its ongoing destruction because of human evil. Through his life and teaching, through his suffering, death, and resurrection, he inserted into human history a seed of grace, truth, and hope that can never be defeated. This seed will, against all opposition and odds, prevail over the evil and injustice of humanity and lead to the world’s ongoing transformation into the world God dreams of. All who find in Jesus God’s hope and truth discover the privilege of participating in his ongoing work of personal and global transformation and liberation from evil and injustice. As part of his transforming community, they experience liberation from the fear of death and condemnation. This is not something they earn or achieve, but rather a free gift they receive as an expression of God’s grace and love.”
A little later in the book, McLaren goes further along this line, discussing the songs of Mary and Zechariah. In seeking to make the point that, at the time of the birth of Christ, these key announcements echoed the themes of the "emerging" rather than the "conventional" view of Christianity. To make the point, McLaren rewrites Mary's "Magnificat" (as he thinks it should have read if the "conventional" view was right) in the following manner:

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my personal Savior, for he has been mindful of the correct saving faith of his servant. My spirit will go to heaven when my body dies, for the Might One has provided forgiveness, assurance, and eternal security for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who have correct saving faith and orthodox articulations of belief, from generation to generation. He will overcome the damning effects of original sin with his mighty arm; he will damn to hell those who believe they can be saved through their own efforts or through any religion other than the new one he is about to form. He will condemn followers of other religions to hell but bring to heaven those will correct belief. He has filled correct believers with spiritual blessings but will send those who are not elect to hell forever. He has helped those with correct doctrinal understanding, remembering to be merciful to those who believe in the correct theories of the atonement, just as our preferred theologians throughout history have articulated.” (emphasis added to increase nausea).
McLaren’s characterization of the orthodox view certainly bear comment and rebuttal. It is, at best, a caricature - and an unfair one at that. His rhetoric here is consistent with his frequently utilized tendency in his writings to make his point seem more reasonable by setting up an unreasonable “straw man” argument for comparison. But in this case, his caricatures and their comparisons lead one to a very different view of the Gospel itself!

Just as one example, he appears to say that God would obviously be unfair to judge men and send them to hell for their “imperfections” while ignoring the clear doctrine of original sin. What is one to make, for example, of his characterizations of the doctrine of original sin and the lost condition of man? What is he implying when he characterizes this view as punishment in hell forever for our “imperfections” and that “because our primal ancestors” (a long time ago) weren’t perfect? What emotion is he trying to stir by saying that because of this ancient “imperfection,” “God has irrevocably determined that the entire universe and all it contains [and the souls of all human beings] will be destroyed”?

McLaren defines the historic, orthodox view of original sin and divine justice as self-evidently untrue, written in a manner that demands “NO – THAT’S NOT TRUE” as the only decent response. But while McLaren states it in an inflammatory fashion, the fact remains that the sin of Adam and Eve is imputed to all men (Romans 5:12 and following), and all of humanity faces an eternity in hell apart from the atoning work of Jesus received by faith. In his book The Story We Find Ourselves In, McLaren characterizes substitutionary atonement (what we have always affirmed as the cornerstone of the Gospel message) as “something sounding like “divine child abuse!”* And while his "emerging view" seems so much more reasonable - especially by comparison - it avoids the foundational question of the spiritual state of man and his need for the substitutionary atonement of Christ. Apart from this, men aren't "spiral[ing] downward in ...evil" - they are DEAD in it.

* To be fair (or at least complete), McLaren makes this statement in a dialogue between characters, and so he might seek to distance himself from the sentiment expressed. He does, however, go on to explain that substitutionary atonement is “a theory” which, along with others, may be “windows” into understanding a broader truth – but, like a window, they are inadequate in conveying the whole of what’s to be viewed outside. “The theories are like windows, and having a theory is better than staring at a blank wall or even a picture on the wall, but theories can’t give you the whole sky… I’d rather use the word ‘Mystery’…” All of which is part of McLaren’s ongoing effort to undermine the certainty of historic truth and propel a sense of mystery which rejects any efforts at propositional truth – at least to the extent it has been viewed as foundational in historic, Orthodox Christianity as understood by traditional Evangelicals.

The type of rhetoric used by McLaren is more than merely "provocative," and it does not represent something over which “reasonable people can disagree.” At best, it is confusing and misleading; at worst, it is “another Gospel” within the meaning of Galatians 1:8, and heretical.

There are certainly many people who have done a fair, scholarly review and assessment of Brian McLaren’s writings (see for example, D.A. Carson’s book Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church, which predates McLaren’s most provocative writing), but my concern is not with scholarly review – we don’t need an analysis of his ideas as much as we need protection from them. This is why church leaders are told to guard the doctrine of the Church – that is, not only to give instruction in sound doctrine, but “also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). It is also why we, as “the rank and file” are commanded to test everything against the Word (e.g., Acts 17:11, 1 John 4:1) and flee from false teaching (Romans 16:17).

Evangelicals (by and large) have thankfully dismissed things like the Joel Olsteen lunacy, but seem to tolerate Brian McLaren – and for the life of me, I can’t understand why. McLaren’s socteriology appears (at least in practical application) to be Palagian, with not-so-subtle hints towards universalism thrown in as well. He is increasingly widely read, invited to prominent speaking events, featured in Christianity Today, and continues to move further and further away from historic Christianity. People need to be warned about him, and the silence of the main stream evangelical church leadership in tolerating – and even promoting his message – is astonishing.

If we have reached the point where someone can redefine the Gospel without reaction from Evangelical leadership, and where aberrant, historically biased, cartoon-like broadsides on historic Christianity (like what’s being offered by Mr. McLaren) are tolerated and even entertained, we’ve sunk farther as a movement than one would have feared. I’m praying that leaders and thinking disciples of Jesus repudiate Mr. McLaren and false teaching for the sake of the name of our Lord – and the eternal benefit of those who are less discriminating.