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Not Everything Must Change (Part 2)

November 14, 2007

Yesterday, I wrote about my time attending a breakfast with Brian McLaren and some thoughts from reading his latest book Everything Must Change. Today is a small update and some additional thoughts after talking personally with Brian and having had some time for reflection.

I attended yesterdays session for Pastors and community leaders at St. Davids Episcopal Church. McLaren covered the same material as the morning session with some additional visual aids (ppt). Afterwards we got to chat for a bit. There is nothing earth shattering to announce here. I shared that while I disagreed with him on several core doctrines I still wanted to come and get a first hand account in order to personalize the man, and to better understand his position. My goal was not to change his mind at this meeting as far smarter and Godly men have already engaged him in that arena. I do think it is helpful if we can approach those we disagree with humility and confidence.

Some additional thoughts:

  1. Gospels/Acts vs. Epistles
    In the book it is quite clear that McLaren’s reframing of Jesus comes from the gospels and the book of Acts. He seems to abandon the epistles in that reframing. As such he is able to reframe Jesus to fit his view of him without dealing with scriptures in the epistles that make strong cases against his reductionist reframing of Jesus. I feel like he abandons the epistles while simultaneously accusing the Conventional View adherents of minimizing the gospel narratives. In answering what Jesus would say about the problems of today, he does without the clear illumination from the epistles that would serve as correctives.
  2. McLaren does ask some good questions, such as 1) What are the biggest problems in the world? and 2) What does Jesus say about them?
    The evangelical community has rightly answered that spiritual lostness is the primary problem. But to stop there is to miss that Jesus also preaches that we are to feed hungry people, clothe naked people and preach freedom to the oppressed of the world. And not only so that we can witness, but because it is part of our witness. Far too few of our churches operate in both areas well. The truth is that we say, “The poor will always be with us” in a fatalistic manner. There are people we can feed today. There are people that we can clothe today. There are people that need freedom from oppression that the gospel brings spiritually as well as physically.
  3. I am afraid that many will simply dismiss this book and some components because McLaren dismisses atonement. I think it is a grave error for McLaren to do so, but I also believe it is a grave error to dismiss some of his questions. I say this because they are the questions that many people who do not know Jesus are asking.

    We need more pastors and believers with good doctrine to provide the answers that people are asking. For example, in engaging those who love the environment, we have the opportunity to explain fully why in their soul they might seek to care for it. Even those who are far from God have shadows of truth in them. The truth is that God created the earth and made us stewards of it. Like us, it is broken and needs restoration. We have the story that tells why, and it is compelling. In this manner we can present Christ and Him crucified for their salvation.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2007 4:39 pm

    I really appreciate your grace-filled discussion of all this. We are coming from different perspectives but I appreciate your willingness to honestly engage another and listen. I hope I am always willing to do the same.

    One thing: I think McLaren is definitely leaning towards the gospels over the epistles. However, I think this is only because most of the church has done the opposite. I think he is focusing on the gospels because they have largely been left out of the discussion in today’s church. He doesn’t really give a balanced view because his task is to revitalize our understand of Jesus’ message. I don’t think this means he wants to “abandon the epistles.” Do you really think he does? I think he believes we must first understand Jesus and his message before we can really understand the epistles. What do you think?

    Ok, one other thing. Do you think McLaren really “dismisses atonement?” I don’t think that’s fair to say.

    Again, thanks.

  2. November 14, 2007 8:22 pm

    Thanks Adam for the confirmation that I am walking the tension in disagreeing with someone respectfully. It doesn’t serve us well to do otherwise. It looks like from your blog that you are involved with Church Under the Bridge in Waco. That is a beautiful ministry and I applaud your efforts down there brother. Oh, and sorry for the length, it is a complex issue and you ask good questions that deserve the respect of a good answer.

    I would agree that many church leaders have focused on the epistles and that often when they teach from the gospels/acts, they teach in principles and propositions solely again with little respect for the literary aspect.

    As far as leaning toward the gospels/acts as a corrective to those who lean toward the epistles, I would prefer that we all seek to ask, “What does the totality of scripture say about this?” Leaning one way too far is still a mistake. I would prefer to see the fully informed view of Jesus in the same text primarily because McLaren builds his case around what Jesus would say based only on the gospels/acts. Of course Jesus is going to be presenting some things that speak to political liberation, that was the context he incarnated himself into.

    If we want a clear picture of who Jesus is, we must allow the epistles to speak into it fully. I mean, these guys walked and talked with Jesus himself. They knew Jesus in the flesh. They were standing there when Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. Why should we elevate our own 2,000 years removed concepts of who Jesus is over the words of those who walked with, who ate with him, who were rebuked by him and some of whom died horrible deaths for his message?

    Of course Paul was not one of the disciples, but he certainly walked the same streets at the same time and later heard directly from him on the road to Damascus. In addition to that, he was in fellowship with those who had been with Jesus for years. I honestly think it is the Pauline epistles that get most of the short-shrift from this crowd.

    As far as the epistles go, I think he trust the historical books (gospels/acts) more than the epistles. He may believe that there was more ‘man’ than ‘holy spirit’ in the writing of the epistles. As far as understanding the gospel/acts and reading the epistles in light of them, I could point out that many of the epistles were written before the gospels were. One could argue that we are to read the gospels in light of the earliest epistles. I would advocate that we view them in light of one another in their proper literary/historical context and seek to see how they complement one another.

    As for abandoning the atonement, I should say that he seems to be walking away from penal substitutionary atonement. There are aspects of the atonement he may well adhere to. He gives an answer from 2004 (http://www.brianmclaren.net/archives/2004/05/theory_of_atonement_41.html) where he seems to kind of answer the question while dodging it. I agree with him in that quote that the gospel is more multi-faceted than just the atonement, but to even minimize it is a major problem for me.

    For a current position we are forced to look at the way he contrasts the Covenant View and the Emerging View on pages 79-80 of Everything Must Change. Concerning the question, ‘How did Jesus respond to the crisis?’ McLaren states the Covenant View in part as ‘…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.’ In the contrasting Emerging View he writes, “…that God loves humanity, even in its lostness and sin. God graciously invites everyone and anyone to turn from his or her current 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”

    Nowhere in his Emerging View (that I can see) does he confirm that Christ was punished for our sins so that would be saved. By writing the contrasts as he did, he at best is silent, and as it is written he appears to reject it as he rejects much of the Conventional View.

    If McLaren intended for us to think that he meant to keep some portion of the Convergent View then he should have pointed out so. In another place he states the Convergent View has some value, but he doesn’t say which parts he would keep. Instead he sets them up as contrasts to one another, meaning one is not like the other.

    McLaren knows his critics believe he has abandoned penal substitutionary atonement. He knows that writing those two views as he did in contrast to one another opens the door wide for his critics to say ‘a-ha’. McLaren wants desperately for the church to stop spending so much time over issues such as this and to focus on helping people. If this is so, then for clarities sake and to achieve his ultimate goal, he should directly state his stance. As it is, he writes in a way, and has written those two contrasting views in such a way, as to bait his critics and then to simultaneously deny saying that he denies the atonement. Have you found in his writing where he affirms penal substitutionary atonement? Or specifically any theories of atonement?

    Lastly, I see a pattern in his writings of pitting one question against another. It goes something like this, ‘We should stop asking about the atonement, and start asking about the kingdom of God.’ By contrasting the academic question opposite the practical question, the reader is left to choose only one and the ‘obvious’ loving one is the practical question. My observation is only that both are valid and should be addressed appropriately.

    Adam, thank you for engaging here in discussion. I really do enjoy great, deep things and rarely get to do it with folks who are interested. And I really do respect McLaren. This issue is also far more than academic for me. It is what informs my ministry and compels me to preach the whole message of the gospel, which includes declaring and demonstrating the gospel in Austin.

    If you are ever in Austin, holler and I will buy you some coffee.

  3. November 16, 2007 1:34 pm

    Jacob – I definitely think the epistles must speak into this – absolutely. I do think to understand the epistles we need a good grounding in the message of Jesus though. I wonder if McLaren will follow-up some of his current work with some more specific work related to Paul. I would like that. You do make a good point about the epistles being written before the gospels. I think there is something to this – perhaps we must discern the message of Jesus in light of all the NT and use that as the basis for understanding the rest context of the NT, etc.

    I don’t have time at the moment to reply to the atonement question fully. A couple thoughts: 1 – he hasn’t specifically addressed the issue in a book. We shouldn’t fault him for not speaking to a topic he has not taken up to write about. 2 – he is certainly wanting to look beyond penal subsitutionary atonement. But that shouldn’t mean he has thrown out atonement completely – I think that is unfair (basis of my original comment).

  4. November 16, 2007 5:59 pm

    Adam, blessings on advancing the Kingdom in Waco brother.

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