McLaren’s “heresy”

I’ve never read anything by Brian McLaren, but the dust-up in some evangelical circles about his new book A New Kind of Christianity is interesting for what it reveals about the presuppositions of at least significant swaths of American evangelicalism. Nothing McLaren says, at least going by the summary offered in the story linked above, will seem shocking to anyone with a passing familiarity with contemporary theology, whether Catholic, Protestant, or whatever. Indeed, a lot of it has gone from being shocking “heresy” to taken-for-granted truism. For instance:

  • The Bible is not inerrant and does not offer precise scientific information on the age of the world, the development of life, etc.
  • The Bible reflects changing, sometimes inconsistent, views of the nature and character of God.
  • Jesus’s ministry was not limited to a determination to die as a sacrifice for sin, but included a positive social vision.
  • Non-Christians are not destined for hell.

I think it’s safe to say that these points would be regarded as uncontroversial by nearly all mainstream theology, at least outside the more conservative precincts of evangelicalism. That doesn’t, by itself, prove that they’re correct, of course, but there comes a time to move on from arguments that were largely settled at the dawn of the 20th century. If anything, it seems odd that McLaren is presenting these conclusions as new and daring, since much of it seems to recapitulate 19th- and 20th-century liberal theology. (I say that with the caveat that I haven’t read his book!)

I’ve complained about the fundamentalist hangover before, and it’s depressing how we can continually get sucked back into fundamentalism’s orbit. This is true even in mainline churches, where fundamentalism seems to be the big Other that we’re constantly defining ourselves over against. My personal view is that, rather than continually re-fighting the modernist-fundamentalist debate, we need a theology that moves beyond it, without discarding tradition or the genuine insights of liberal theology.

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4 thoughts on “McLaren’s “heresy”

  1. I read one or two of his books, and a few other books and articles within the “Emergent” orbit of which he seems to occupy part of the center. We who are of a moderate-liberal mainline, liturgical ilk find much of what they promote – liturgy, signs, symbols, gestures and, as you say above, theology that is not terribly earth-shatteringly new – to be terribly familiar.

    Though we can ask, “What’s taken you so long to embrace these treasures?” folks like McLaren are not writing for us but for the evangelical masses, some of whom are wearying of the megachurch and red-toned political straight jacket that is part of much of American evangelicalism.

  2. I too have not read this and probably never will but did read A Generous Orthodoxy which, based on your summary, occupies a similar role exposusing a centrist and majoritarian theology marked by a consensus of Christian belief.

    The ungracious part of is inclined to respond by simply refusing to respond, to allow the heresy hunters to argue themselves into a pre-Scopes like Fundamentalist enclave of complete irrelevance since if the bait is not taken they will inevitably turn on themselves.

    And, in this case, I’m inclined to be exceedingly ungracious!

  3. hasn’t the conservative evangelicals learned anything since bernard ramm’s educational books written over 30 years ago???

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