Challies has just lobbed another grenade at a fellow believer. If you’re keeping score, that’s two in just a little over two weeks. Then it was Pope Francis who earned the distinction of being tagged by Challies as a “false teacher”. Now it’s Brian McLaren’s turn to join that club.
(UPDATE: Brian McLaren has written a response to Challies’ piece. It’s good.)
Brian McLaren, for those of you who don’t know, is one of the leading voices of the Emerging Church movement which has gained traction over the previous decade. The Emerging Church movement is a very loose movement of people and churches seeking to explore new ways of doing the Christian faith and living the Christian life. McLaren’s writings have helped to spearhead this movement.
So what is it that gets Challies’ goat? Chiefly it is McLaren’s view of Scripture. After taking some choice quotes from McLaren’s writings, Challies builds to this climax:
This is nothing less than theological liberalism in twenty-first century, post-modern clothing (which is why Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism offers a rebuttal, though it was written 90 years earlier). Like Fosdick and other liberals before him, McLaren has assumed authority over the Bible instead of placing himself under its authority. His understanding of Scripture frees him to see Christian doctrine as evolving, and himself as an instrument of this evolution. In this way he revisits and reinterprets whatever does not accord with modern sensibilities. He has denied the literal nature of hell along with its eternality; he has denied the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ; he has denied Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father; he has affirmed homosexuality as good and pleasing to God. And he continues to think and to write, meaning that his theological development is not yet complete.
Really, it should not be surprising that Challies would react this way to McLaren. Neo-Calvinists, as a rule, tend to react quite viscerally (think Game Of Thrones) to anything that looks, feels, or even smells Emerging or Emergent.
Now I know, McLaren has said some pretty crazy things over the years. But on the whole, he has gotten people to talk about things that need to be talked about and to rethink some things that need to be rethought. Challies, like many neo-Calvinist voices, writes with the air of one who wishes to shut down all conversation and impose his preconceived ideas of how things ought to be upon all the rest of us as God’s final authority. I had similar issues with John Piper’s dismissal of Rob Bell a couple of years back.
Where does Challies get the idea that McLaren’s “understanding of Scripture frees him to see Christian doctrine as evolving, and himself as an instrument of this evolution…. He has denied the literal nature of hell along with its eternality; he has denied the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ; he has denied Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father; he has affirmed homosexuality as good and pleasing to God”? Are there places in McLaren’s writings where he actually comes out and makes these or similar statements? Or is this, as I suspect, a case where McLaren says a little of this, a little of that, in such a way that if you put two and two together according to the Neo-Reformed way of looking at things, it all adds up to denial of the literal nature of hell, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, etc.?
As to the literal nature of hell, there is an AWFUL LOT that we just don’t know about how the afterlife is going to work. Though it is quite clear from the Bible that there is a place called heaven and a place called hell and the place called hell is not the kind of place you would want to take a girl on a first date, it is not so clear as to what heaven and hell are actually like. Portrayals of heaven and hell in Scripture are quite sketchy and inconsistent, and leave an awful lot of blanks to fill in. Can we at least be honest enough to admit that much of what we know–or rather, think we know–about heaven and hell comes from Dante and Michelangelo and Thomas Kinkade and not Scripture?
As to McLaren affirming “homosexuality as good and pleasing to God”: Why did that one make the cut? Out of all the things Challies could have said about McLaren, why did he feel compelled to land on homosexuality? Why include it in a list of charges alleging that McLaren denies essential doctrines about heaven and hell and the atoning work of Jesus Christ? The Bible is clear in its denunciation of homosexual behavior, but the percentage of verses and passages dealing with homosexuality is minuscule compared to the text as a whole, or the percentage of passages dealing with other subjects. The amount of attention that homosexuality receives from the evangelical world is completely and totally out of all proportion compared to the amount of attention that it gets in Scripture.
But there are larger issues in play here. All of this proceeds from a view of Scripture which lies at the heart of Challies’ critique, which one can see in the concluding paragraph:
Where McLaren casts doubt on the idea that we can ever really confidently know and understand the Bible, Christians have long held that God spoke and inspired his prophets and apostles to write because he actually intended to be heard as saying something, and that the message would be carried on and be understood forever after (see 2 Peter 1:16-21). This is why Jude calls it “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and why Paul is so emphatic with Timothy that he “guard the good deposit entrusted to [him]” (2 Timothy 1:14). Kevin DeYoung says it well in Taking God at His Word: “The Bible is an utterly reliable book, an unerring book, a holy book, a divine book. … There is no more authoritative declaration than what we find in the word of God, no firmer ground to stand on, no ‘more final’ argument that can be spoken after Scripture has spoken.”
What is being articulated here is the idea that every Scriptural text has a clear meaning which can be arrived at using the tools of reason and logic. This view has dominated much of evangelical thought since the Enlightenment. It is basically an attempt to answer the challenges of Enlightenment thought by basically attempting to beat them at their game, on their turf, playing by their rules. Who thought that we could possibly win under such terms? When Enlightenment thinkers dismiss Scripture as irrelevant because it is not scientifically verifiable, we have responded “OH YES IT IS!!!!!!!!!” And in attempting to defend against such challenges, we have done violence to Scripture and turned it into something it was never meant to be. Part and parcel of this is the concept of inerrancy, which basically claims that the Bible is completely and totally free from error in everything that it says. I have lots of issues with inerrancy, which would probably best be left as another diatribe for another day, but the principal issue is that it proceeds out of a view of divine inspiration which would be much more at home in Islam or Mormonism than in Christianity.
When McLaren “casts doubt on the idea that we can ever really confidently know and understand the Bible”, I do not think he is casting doubt on Scripture. Instead, he is casting doubt on a philosophical system of thought with respect to Scripture that has dominated the evangelical movement virtually since its inception, and which, I believe, has led us down a spiritual dead end. If our movement is to move forward, we must have conversations about the authority and inspiration of Scripture, and find better ways of representing and articulating these important truths. Making authoritative pronouncements in an attempt to shut down the discussion, such as we find in this post, does no one any favors.