Brian McLaren comes out fighting in his newest book, A New Kind of Christianity. Indeed, his savvy style and fancy footwork would make Rocky Balboa proud! I suspect that McLaren, however, would not be comfortable with the fighting metaphor. “Dialogue,” “conversation,” and “exchange” would be more appropriate for this emergent leader. So step out of the “ring” and into the safe confines of a comfortable cafe and enjoy a chai tea latte as we dialogue, converse, and respond to A New Kind of Christianity.
First, I appreciate McLaren’s willingness to receive criticism. He is crystal clear about this. He is very open about the controversial proposals that he sets forth. He expects response and for this we should be grateful.
Second, McLaren’s quest for a new kind of Christianity is commendable as far as it goes: “So our quest calls us first and foremost to nurture a robust spiritual life – not only a deep commitment to serve God, but also a deep desire to know and love God …” His goal may appear admirable enough on the surface; however the means he utilizes in order to achieve the ends are deeply troubling. This short review seeks to surface some of the more troubling aspects of McLaren’s work.
The author begins by alerting readers to the need for a fresh set of questions and likens his pursuit to Luther’s 95 theses which caused a firestorm in the 16th century and implies a revived firestorm in the 21st century. McLaren’s 96th thesis is as follows: “It’s time for a new quest, launched by new questions, a quest across denominations around the world, a quest for new ways to believe and new ways to live and serve faithfully in the way of Jesus, a quest for a new kind of Christian faith.” McLaren’s so-called 96th thesis sets the stage for ten questions to follow which compromise the main content of the book. They include:
1. The Narrative Question: What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
2. The Authority Question: How should the Bible be understood?
3. The God Question: Is God violent?
4. The Jesus Question: Who is Jesus and why is he so important?
5. The Gospel Question: What is the gospel?
6. The Church Question: What do we do about the church?
7. The Sex Question: Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
8. The Future Question: Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
9. The Pluralism Question: How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
10. What-Do-We-Do-Now Question: How can we translate our quest into action?
McLaren makes it clear that his assertions are merely responses, not answers. But it becomes painfully clear throughout the book that his assertions are in fact answers, especially in his denial of the Fall, original sin, and the biblical description of hell and eternal torments. Most important is coming to this understanding: McLaren’s answers (pardon me, his responses) are rooted in his refutation of the traditional biblical plot-line.
The author challenges and condemns this plot-line, namely, the way of reading redemptive history in the following categories: “Eden, the Fall, Condemnation, Salvation, Heaven/Hell.” In this context, he writes, “We might question conventional theories of atonement or the nature and population of hell or whether concepts like original sin or total depravity need to be modified” (p. 35). He maintains the traditional overarching storyline in the Bible is the narrative that Plato taught and was the social and political narrative of the Roman Empire, what McLaren refers to as “the Greco-Roman narrative.” McLaren argues that we must “exit the Greco-Roman narrative – quietly and courageously walk out the door and leave its six straight lines behind …” (p. 45).
McLaren is concerned with matters of authority, and rightly so in a culture where God’s Word has been replaced with human autonomy. However, his approach is less than desirable and places readers on the slippery slope of compromise. He rejects the notion of reading the Bible as a “Constitution.” Instead of timeless principles, the author sees the Bible as an “inspired portable library.” Instead of “brick and mortar to construct a building of certainty,” the author sees “hammers and chisels in the form of stories and questions.” Instead of propositional truth, the author views Scripture as an “event or discovery” an “encounter that occurs to readers when they engage with the text in faith.” Instead of “revelation is” the author sees “revelation happening to us.” And instead of viewing the Bible as authoritative and placing the reader “under” the text, the author sees the reader standing “in” the text.
A more lengthy review is necessary in order to respond to McLaren’s beliefs in an open future, his views on the person and work of Jesus, hell, homosexuality, pluralism, and his repudiation of the traditional Reformed understanding of the sovereignty of God, the doctrine of election, and the biblical reality that God ordains everything that comes to pass.
A New Kind of Christianity offers nothing short of a radical reformulation of the historic Christian worldview that results in a marginalized, compromised, watered-down caricature of biblical Christianity. What emerges may appear “new” at first glance, but has more to do with a neo-orthodox approach to Scripture. Indeed, a new emergent liberalism is alive and well. One recalls Barth’s repudiation of propositional revelation and immediately recognizes the similarities of this “old” belief system.
Thoughtful Christians must return to the “ring” where men like Gresham Machen, Carl Henry, and Francis Schaeffer fought long and hard to maintain high standards of biblical fidelity and orthodoxy in the 20th century. These men were firm in their resolve to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3, ESV). How can serious-minded Christ-followers do any less? How can faithful Christ-followers discard the biblical plot-line that emerges in redemptive history, namely, Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration?
Brian McLaren and his version of what he describes as “new Christianity” may appear to be more comfortable in the cafe than the boxing ring. Let the reader decide.