Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, Question 1

What is the overarching story line of the Bible?

Kuyperians such as Al Wolters (Creation Regained) Neal Plantinga, (Engaging God’s World), and myself (Heaven is a Place on Earth) have argued rather persuasively that the evangelical church can free itself from Platonism by recovering the biblical story of creation, fall, and redemption.  So I was startled—and amused—by Brian’s claim that this creation, fall, and redemption narrative is itself the product of Platonic thought.

Why does Brian think that the narrative of C-F-R comes from Plato rather than Scripture?  He mistakenly thinks that C-F-R implies that the original creation came in static perfection and that redemption returns us to a heavenly condition where any sort of growth is impossible.  Of course, many Christians hold such a view, or something similar, which is why we Kuyperians have written our books.  But we don’t think that Brian can dismiss the C-F-R paradigm as Platonic without contending with us who have used C-F-R to defeat Plato.

Brian’s real beef with C-F-R is not the C or the R but the F.  He does not believe that there was a Fall (or original sin or total depravity or hell) but that what we have traditionally called the Fall is actually “a coming-of age story” which—wait for it—describes “the first stage of ascent as human beings progress from the life of hunter-gatherers to the life of agriculturalists and beyond.”  I have quoted him verbatim so you know I am not making this up.  I asked my Old Testament colleague where Brian may be getting this from, and he said that this sounds like modern Judaism (which doesn’t believe in a Fall or original sin), except that even it wouldn’t say that Genesis 3 represents a step up.

Brian says a lot of other things in Part 1, but as you can see, he is no longer having a Christian conversation.  He prefers the Hebrew God Elohim over the Greco-Roman God Theos, for the former prefers the messiness of story and evolution while the latter is a “perfect—Platonic god” who “loves spirit, state, and being” and is “perfectly furious” with his fallen creation and just wants to smash it all to hell.  Theos may be popular with the “fire-breathing preacher” (does anyone know anyone like this?), but he “is an idol, a damnable idol.”  Brian writes that he would rather be an atheist than believe in the God that most of us think is found in the Bible.

Four other observations:

1. Brian seems to be offering a modern Jewish rather than Christian perspective on the opening chapters of Genesis.  His flat-out denial of a Fall, original sin, and total depravity and his dismissal of Theos raises questions about his view of Paul, who clearly teaches the former in Romans 5, and the New Testament, which refers to God with the Greek term Theos.

2. Brian does not seem to believe that there was a first man and a first sin, but that Genesis 3 is a myth which describes how the entire human race became farmers.  This view fits with his acceptance of evolution, as most who embrace evolution find it hard to believe that there was a first man who rebelled in a cataclysmic Fall.  I don’t know how the farmer bit fits, but it is funny.

3. The fourth question which Brian will address in this book is “Who is Jesus and why is he important?”  Given that Brian doesn’t believe in a Fall, original sin, or hell, that is a very good question.  I can’t wait to hear why God would come and die for a world that didn’t need his help.

4. Brian seems incapable of writing a book without taking repeated cheap shots at seminary education.  He often reminds us that he missed out on seminary and is better for it, that he would not see what he sees in Scripture if he had gone to seminary.  On that we agree.

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41 Responses to Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, Question 1

  1. Dan Jesse says:

    Peter Bouteneff in “Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives” points out (through the writings of the early church) that there was a faction of writers who pointed out that the Calvinistic Fall either did not happen, or did not happen in Genesis 3.

    But the intriguing thing is that they point out that Creation is Redemption, so the narrative approach fails to take account of the connection between the two.

    So not only does Brian not understand the biblical text, but he shows an ignorance towards the early writings.

  2. Tim Farley says:

    Just curious, do you know what Brian’s views are on inerrancy? It seems like he would have to be willing to throw out a great deal of Paul’s writing (and the rest of the NT) to dismiss a Fall, original sin, and hell. Either that or he believes everything is allegory.

    If Brian believes as you have described, the only importance to Christ’s life and death (for McLaren) is for Jesus to be a good example to us. We should try to live as he lived, which means loving others. The only thing is, I am not sure why I should care about living like Jesus if there is no hell or judgement anyways. What difference does it make?

  3. Jonathan says:

    Interesting, trying to figure out how someone can be a Christian and not believe in a fall. Why the rest of the Bible if there is no fall? Why the prophets proclaiming about Jesus? Don’t you have to throw out most of the Bible to deal with not believing in the fall?

    Will sure follow along the rest of the questions and ansewrs

  4. Tim Bertolet says:

    It’s a bit ironic that reading Genesis as a “coming of age” story also has its roots in Gnosticism because (a) there are closer links to Platonism in that worldview and (b) emergents (e.g. Tony Jones) have often accused evangelicals of being too gnostic. Gnostics made a big deal about man receiving the knowledge of good and evil in the garden.

    As for “the original creation came in static perfection” –here is the strength of the traditional Reformed position with it’s notion of the fourfold state of man. Man was created in innocence but that is not static perfection. Meditating seriously on the mediatorship of Christ as the second Adam has led theologians to conclude that hypothetical had Adam obeyed and kicked Satan out of the garden, he would have been secured in eschatological righteousness. The creation was not the “new creation”. This is simply noticeable in the fact that it is the eschatological life of the resurrection that is ‘indestructible life’ not the life pre-fall.

  5. Darin says:

    just wanted to say thanks. I have only read one of his book, well almost read it. The Secret Message of Jesus. I remember thinking if this guy thinks he figured out something secret after all of these years….

    I remember going to some of these emergent gatherings several years ago and deciding this isn’t for me.

    Thanks for getting this information out there. It is greatly appreciated.

  6. Jonathan Shelley says:

    As Machen points out in Christianity and Liberalism, it is Jesus who brings up eternal damnation, Hell, the outer darkness, etc. So if Theos is a “damnable idol,” he is the idol Christ believed in, and if Christ is our moral example, shouldn’t we be beholden to the same damnable idol that Christ was?

    Sorry, I was expecting consistency (logical, if not actual) in McLaren’s thought.

  7. Adam Ellis says:

    Dr. Wittmer,
    What I’m about to say, I say with a great deal of respect for you and your work. I loved your book “Heaven Is A Place on Earth”. It was very helpful to me personally, and I have recommended it to countless friends (and will continue to do so). I couple of years ago, I listened to a dialogue between you, McLaren and Ed Dobson. I remember being struck particularly by how you handled yourself. I remember thinking, “This is how criticism should be done…with a charitable, ethical respect”. You raised good questions, while maintaining your character. I was impressed.

    That being said, I thought this review was beneath you. I’m reading McLaren’s book, apparently at about the same pace you are. I don’t find your review to be charitable, or even fair. It doesn’t seem to be written by the same thoughtful critic I listened to a couple of years ago. Frankly, it sounds like all of the other people on the McLaren-bashing bandwagon. It’s a shame too, because I’d really like to know what the other Michael Wittmer on those recordings would have said about this book.

    I sincerely mean you no disrespect, and I appreciate and thank you for how your past work has blessed my life and faith. I wish you all the best.

    Grace and Peace,
    Adam Ellis

  8. Sam Oltz says:

    Dr. Wittmer, I agree with your forth additional observation. Mclaren’s handling of Scripture really shows his background in postmodern literature, and his lack of theological training.

    To answer Tim Farley’s question on McLaren’s position on inerrancy, I think McLaren would hate to put himself in a box like that.

    I don’t mean this to be a plug, but a few years back I read all of McLaren’s books at the time (Generous Orthodoxy was the newest), and wrote a paper that tried to determine McLaren’s hermeneutic. If you’re interested in reading it, you can see it here: http://www.samoltz.com/drop/Hermeneutic_of_McLaren.pdf

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  10. mikewittmer says:

    Adam:

    Thanks for your comment. I explain that neither I nor my views have changed in an earlier post, “Say what you need to say.” The issue is that Brian is now openly saying what he used to only ask–even he says that “the cat is now out of the bag” so he feels free to say what he really thinks. So if you’re looking for movement, it’s all on his part.

  11. Bob Robinson says:

    What the F happened to the F?

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  13. zoecarnate says:

    Hi all,

    The idea of looking at the Genesis narrative as telling the story of humanity’s advent from hunter-gatherer (Eden) to agrarian (Cain & Abel) to early city-state (Nimrod, etc…) has a lot of currency in anarcho-primitivist writings like that of Daniel Quinn, as well as integral thinkers like Ken Wilber (especially in his ‘Up From Eden’). I’m not suggesting that Brian’s directly influenced by these sources, but rather that I’ve been reading many similar things for years in the fields of anthropology, developmental psychology, and more mainline biblical studies. To me, viewing our earliest Scripture through this lens makes it more real, not less. But it’s worth discussing for sure.

    Grace & peace,

    Mike

  14. Ali says:

    Phil Pulman’s trilogy ”His Dark Materials” apparently portrays the Fall as a coming of age…..

  15. Dave says:

    When a person denies the very reason he needs to be saved, and the very means by which he can be saved, that person is not saved. This is not a judgment — it is a statement of fact based on the confession of his own mouth. Can someone who denies Christ be saved by accepting Christ? Can someone who denies original sin confess his need to be delivered from it by Christ? Why all this conversation about whether Mclaren is a Christian, or whether what he believes has merit? The man is not a Christian and is not saved. Thus, according to Jesus Christ Himself, McLaren cannot see the kingdom of God. Why is it so hard for people to simply call this man what he is? He is an unbeliever who, because of the utter inability for professing Christians today to discern the Truth, has been made popular through his books and heretical ideas. That is all he is.

  16. zoecarnate says:

    So Dave, is the Gospel all about (original) sin-management? Brian’s perspective on sin is quite akin to the East Orthodox view – sin is very real, but its encroachment is systemic rather than genetic. Jesus’ victory is also systemic.

    Here’s another way to read his book…

  17. C.G. says:

    I think Dave makes a good point:

    If you reject SOME of the words of Christ, it’s reasonable to question whether you believe ANY of the words of Christ.

    If you reject the notion of original sin, it’s reasonable to question whether you believe in a need for salvation / redemption.

    Thus, if you believe only some of what Christ says, and don’t see any need for His sacrificial death, then you’re indiscernible from the world, and not a Christian in any meaningful sense. Honestly, if the world is praising you because you’re telling them what they want to hear, you really ought to be questioning whether you’re telling them the TRUTH.

    You are still walking in blindness, convinced of your own insight. You say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing,” not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

    I’m reminded of Paul’s rebuke of Elymas on Cyprus: “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?”

  18. Adam Ellis says:

    Dr. Wittmer,
    Thanks for your response. I may have been a bit unclear. I have zero problems with honest criticism. I don’t think McLaren (or any author) should be beyond criticism. What I’m referring to is a generally condescending to hostile tone that only serves to polarize and alienate, rather than seeking reconciliation and healing (with all of the concern about Brian’s theology, I’m seeing a shocking lack of concern for Brian). Please understand, Dave’s comment above illustrates this tone far more than anything you’ve written. However, your critique moves much closer to it that I remember from your face-to-face dialogue with him a couple of years ago.
    Grace and Peace,
    Adam Ellis

  19. Darius says:

    Adam, would you suggest that Paul should have used less “hostile tones” with Elymas as C.G. quoted above? Or is it because you view McLaren as part of the Christian fold rather than a false teacher?

    That said, we should indeed remember that McLaren is a person and pray for his soul and that Jesus would rescue him from his self-centered theology just as He rescued us all from our own self-centered lives (and still does every day).

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  21. Randy Buist says:

    Dr. Wittmer,

    What does it mean to have a conversation that is not ‘Christian’ or to have a conversation that is ‘other than Christian’? It’s a term that I read you and others using.

    From a reformed perspective, I’m not even sure what it means to have a non-Christian conversation. For reference, I can’t imagine any professor from Calvin Theological Seminary deeming a conversation ‘non-Christian’ when it’s engaging theology and philosophy. I suppose a gossip session would be something other than Christian, but how is theology such?

    Please explain as Calvin Seminary didn’t help me much in understanding your perspective here.

    Thanks.

  22. Jeff Straka says:

    If this C-F-R theology was such an absolute essential concept for people to hear and understand, why did Jesus not bother to teach it to those he encountered? Why did he not tell them how Adam and Eve’s “original sin” separated them from God and that he needed to go through a sacrificial death in order for God to be restored to them? How was he able to heal and restore people (bringing them into the Kingdom) if he had not yet been crucified and not yet risen to become the New Adam? Was the healing they experienced was only a temporary “patch” since he would have to die first for the “real” restoration and healing to take place? It seemed they were fully restored once Jesus made them aware that the “flow” of God was already IN them – they just had to wake up to it! Wasn’t his whole sermon on the mount laying out the ways in which they could awaken and become aware of the “flow” of God already in them?

    So I really want to know how one can piece together this C-F-R theology based on what Jesus says and does.

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  27. Nate says:

    Mike,

    This is not the first time this ‘coming of age’ interpretation view of the Fall has been posited. Have you at all looked into Pelagius’ account of the Fall in his “Letter to Demetrias”? Brian’s view sounds very similar to Pelagius’ interpretation.

    Thanks for your work at the seminary,
    Nate

  28. raincitypastor says:

    Sorry to join the conversation late, but I wanted to address Tim Farley’s comment: “I am not sure why I should care about living like Jesus if there is no hell or judgement anyways. What difference does it make?”

    Tim’s question is, in part, precisely why McLaren is so popular. Like him or don’t, but understand that there’s an ocean of people in this world who are motivated by something wholly other than hell avoidance, or making it to heaven. Such people recognize that this world is broken at every level, from the deepest parts of the heart to the human structures, to the very geosphere. God’s message about justice, hope, beauty, rooted in Christ’s teachings, death, and triumph over the cross is a message worth embodying, even if everyone goes to hell, or nobody does.

    People who are able, with great precision, to defend the historic orthodoxies of our faith in a way that helps people ‘get to heaven’, but who fail to address the longings of the heart for beauty and justice are, in my estimation, missing the mark.

  29. Tim Farley says:

    raincitypastor:

    “People who are able, with great precision, to defend the historic orthodoxies of our faith in a way that helps people ‘get to heaven’, but who fail to address the longings of the heart for beauty and justice are, in my estimation, missing the mark.”

    Romans 3:10-20 describes the nature of the human heart much differently than you do. The truth is, we are all thoroughly self-centered and all we care about is pleasing oursleves. I know this is true through God’s word, my own personal desires, and by observing the world in which we live. Our only hope is the grace of God which transforms our lives and makes it possible for us to love others as ourselves.

    It may not sit well with McLaren and others to hear that there is a day of judgement coming, but how can we overlook the fact that there is? The Bible emphasizes it over and over. Should I believe that McLaren’s methods are better than those of Jesus, Paul, and the other writers of the New Testament since they all emphasized a coming judgement? To de-emphasize a day of judgement is to remove a foundational piece of Christian orthodoxy.

    A last thing, you set up a false dichotomy in your comment. Why can’t we defend the orthodoxies of our faith and address issues of beauty and justice at the same time? Is this not true Christianity: “faith working through love”(Galatians 5:6)?

  30. raincitypastor says:

    This is all well and good Tim, if the words of Jesus aren’t considered. But if they are, then we’re forced to deal with the pesky truth that Jesus’ style of evangelism was, largely without even mentioning heaven or hell, to simply invite people to follow Him. Some did, and those who did became involved in the incredible privilege of making the good reign of God visible here on this earth.

    Of course, none of this makes Romans 3 any less of a reality – we’re inherently sinful. I wonder though, why inviting people to lives of justice, hope, beauty, peace, and all the other fruits of God’s reign, just like Jesus did, is somehow seen as de-emphasizing the gospel, when it’s the very thing that Jesus Himself did time and time again.

    I’m not suggesting we ignore judgement; rather I’m saying hell avoidance was surely not the entirety of Jesus’ message.

  31. Tim Farley says:

    raincitypastor:

    “I’m not suggesting we ignore judgement; rather I’m saying hell avoidance was surely not the entirety of Jesus’ message.”

    And I am not suggesting that judgement is the entirety of Jesus’ message either, but as you stated, it is part of it. In fact, Jesus mentioned it quite frequently. The Olivet Discourse found in Matthew 24-25 is an example of Jesus’ warnings about coming judgement. I do not want to list every warning of Jesus, but there are many.

  32. raincitypastor says:

    and I do not wish to mention all the times Jesus invites people to participate in His good kingdom but they are also many, which brings me back to my original point: some people are motivated by hell avoidance, many others by the invitation to participate in, and make visible, God’s good reign. In both cases, we know we’re broken and in need of God’s intervention.

  33. Tim Farley says:

    raincitypastor:

    I think you miss the point of my original comment. It was in response to Mike’s point 3 in his post:

    “3. The fourth question which Brian will address in this book is “Who is Jesus and why is he important?” Given that Brian doesn’t believe in a Fall, original sin, or hell, that is a very good question. I can’t wait to hear why God would come and die for a world that didn’t need his help.”

    McLaren denies a coming judgement. My post was not about what we choose to emphasize. It was about denial of a core Christian doctrine. A denial of these things is unbiblical and leads to a misunderstanding of the cross.

    Again, I think you set up a false dichotomy about how we present the gospel. Why can’t we do both? We can warn of judgement and invite people to participate in God’s reign at the same time. To do otherwise is to proclaim an incomplete gospel.

  34. raincitypastor says:

    yes, I well may have missed your point. I was reacting to your statement: “I am not sure why I should care about living like Jesus if there is no hell or judgement anyways. What difference does it make?”

    That sounds as if the point of the gospel is entirely about avoiding hell, like you’re saying, “if there is no hell, who cares about living for Christ?”

    If you’re saying we can invite people to God’s reign and warn of judgement, then we agree – but God’s reign is precisely why I’d care about living for Jesus even if there were no hell or judgement.

    cheers…

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  36. –The idea of looking at the Genesis narrative as telling the story of humanity’s advent from hunter-gatherer (Eden) to agrarian (Cain & Abel) to early city-state (Nimrod, etc…) has a lot of currency in anarcho-primitivist writings like that of Daniel Quinn, as well as integral thinkers like Ken Wilber (especially in his ‘Up From Eden’).

    Considering that McLaren in a footnote in one of his earlier books (I think “A Generous Orthodoxy”) makes reference to Wilber positively, no doubt that is one source of his way of viewing things.

    And having myself read Wilber’s “A Brief History of Everything”, McLaren’s ideas do seem a lot like what I remember of Wilber’s.

    Finally, Wilber isn’t anything close to Christian in his teachings.

  37. –If this C-F-R theology was such an absolute essential concept for people to hear and understand, why did Jesus not bother to teach it to those he encountered?

    Umm…he was primarily among the Jewish people, the ones who had the true account and believed it. He didn’t have to correct them on that, but on other things.

    –Wasn’t his whole sermon on the mount laying out the ways in which they could awaken and become aware of the “flow” of God already in them?

    What? Where does the SotM say anything about “the ‘flow’ of God already in them”? Or, for that matter, about an “awakening”? That comes off very new-agey.

  38. Klaudia Schwenk says:

    Having laboriously trawled through all of your responses I have to say that I am somewhat disappointed as you are all avoiding the issue of the fall. Only one of you seems to indicate that you believe in an actual person called Adam (no mention of Eve, strangely enough) who got us into this mess in the first place.
    Sorry, find that one hard to believe – too much evidence for evolution. So, when did this perfect state exist and when exactly did it all go wrong? Dinosaur stage, Ice age,…?
    Despite my somewhat flippant tone I really am struggling with this and nobody who believes that Jesus came to save us from this original sin/fall, whatever seems to tackle this without going back to Adam. At least, Brian McLaren addresses the issue even if it doesn’t appear to be very helpful.

  39. Marty Vershel says:

    According to Jesus (not Paul), what is the criteria for being sent to “hell”? Many of the parables deal with hell/lakes of fire/place of torment, etc. But yet how many parables make praying some “sinners” prayer a prerequisite?

    So what then are we to believe as followers of Jesus NOT followers of Paul?

  40. mwesterholm says:

    Your question as phrased here, Mr. Vershel, presents a false choice. (1) Scripture calls us to imitate Paul as he imitates Christ; (2) Paul’s epistles are Spirit-inspired. Thus, my worry is that the language in the question pits the Trinity against itself—a dichotomy of which the Church knows nothing.

    And while the stereotype is common, I think you’d have a difficult time finding actual people who believe that a bare “praying some ‘sinners’ prayer” functions as the essential determiner of genuine faith.

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