Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, Interlude

The Defining Issue

Before I examine Brian’s next question, I think it is important to interact with the foundational thesis which grounds everything else he says in this book.  Brian’s underlying point is that what Christians call the Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative actually starts with Plato and was adopted later by imperial Rome.  It is this “Greco-Roman narrative” which generates the violence and oppression which Brian seeks to avoid.

Specifically, Brian says that the Greco-Roman narrative produced:

1. Dualisms, such as “matter/spirit, physics/metaphysics, natural/supernatural, and male/female” (emphasis mine).

2. A Feeling of Superiority, where Greeks and Romans thought they were better than other, barbaric people.

3. An “Us” versus “Them” Mentality, where we exclude those who are not like us.

If you accept this thesis then everything else Brian says pretty much follows.

1. The Bible is not our authoritative constitution because that would reinforce a dualism between God and us and enable those in the know to feel superior to those who don’t get it.

2. There is no Fall, because that would imply a dualism between a previously good world and our present fallen one.

3. There is no hell, for that would be the ultimate power play upon those on the outside, resulting in an everlasting dualism between the saved and the damned.

4. Jesus is forever the suffering servant and never the conquering Lord, for that would split him into a dualism of sorts, with the returning Jesus playing the ultimate superior who casts his enemies into hell.

5. Other religions must be acceptable because who are we to say that we are better than them? (another dualism).

6. Homosexual practice is not only acceptable, it beats advocating “the Platonic dualisms in which maleness and femaleness are two absolute, eternal categories of being into which all people fit.”

Since Brian’s entire book hinges on this Greco-Roman thesis, I need to say a few words about it.

1. Brian does not give an argument for this thesis.  He simply says that it dawned on him in conversation that the traditional understanding of the biblical narrative came from the Roman Empire, which picked it up from Plato.  Brian’s hubris here qualifies him for Stephen Colbert’s Alpha Dog of the Week.  Brian’s entire book rests on his belief that Christians have confused the biblical narrative with Plato and Caesar, and yet he does not give an argument as to why this is so.  We could just take his word for it, except that there is good reason to think that he is wrong.

2. The Christian understanding of creation, fall, and redemption differs dramatically from Plato’s pagan version.

a. Creation:  the Bible says the entire world, including its physical aspect, is good.  Plato taught that the material world is evil (matter is the matter).

b. Fall:  the Bible teaches that our problem is moral rebellion, with ontological consequences (such as death).  Plato taught that our problem is ontological (we are trapped in bodies) and epistemological (we are ignorant of our true home).

c. Redemption:  the Bible teaches that salvation is moral, with ontological consequences (e.g., resurrection).  Plato taught that salvation occurred through education.

At every point in the story Christian orthodoxy contradicts Plato’s narrative.  So how exactly does Brian think that our story came from Plato?

3. Brian’s explanation of the consequences of the Greco-Roman narrative looks very much like a postmodern projecting his views (by negation) upon them (the great sin of the Greco-Roman culture was feeling superior to those who were different).  With that said, I agree that we should not feel or act superior toward others and we should not strive to exclude them unnecessarily (though every meaningful set, such as a church, will necessarily have a boundary between what is inside and outside).

4. Brian’s un-nuanced broadside against all dualisms is silly (there’s a theological term for you).  I have written an entire book against Platonic dualism, so no one can accuse me of being in bed with Plato.  But not all dualisms are Platonic.  Even more, not all dualisms are wrong.  Is Brian against all pairs?  He would have made an awful Noah, with all those animals coming toward him two by two.

Is he really against a male-female dualism?  Try holding that view the next time you take out your wife on a date.  Is he really against a natural/supernatural dualism?  This dualism is the foundation for everything we believe.  Christian thought begins with the fact that there are two kinds of reality, God and everything else (creation).  Brian’s point here is profoundly disturbing, and raises the question as to whether he believes that God is a separate being from creation.  Is he slouching toward a panentheism which does not distinguish God from this world?

This is a serious charge.  I am not saying that Brian claims to be a panentheist, only that his denial of a natural/supernatural distinction implies as much.  If he means something different, now would be a good time to speak up.

Finally, Brian’s book will persuade a lot of people because he uses a lot of Scripture.  There are many biblical passages that speak to loving our neighbor and our need for unity, so the fact that Brian finds much Scripture to his liking is not surprising.  However, discerning readers will notice the parts of Scripture which Brian omits or explains away (Gen. 6; John 14:6; Rom. 1:26; 5:12-21; Rev. 19:11-16), and just as important, weigh the likelihood that his fundamental assertion about the Greco-Roman argument is right.  I have given several reasons to reject it, and since Brian supplies no argument for it, a wise reader will remain unconvinced.

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23 thoughts on “Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, Interlude

  1. Thanks for posting these entries – they are extremely helpful.

    Rob

  2. Enjoying these posts very much. Thanks.

    Jason

  3. I won’t speak for Brian here, but I will say without hesitation that I am a panehtheist – and that this seems to be the highest biblical view of the nature of God. I hold my panentheism as strongly as I do my monotheism and my Trinitarianism. Panentheism (as opposed to pantheism) absolutely distinguishes God from this world.

    I explore Christ-centered panentheism here and here.

  4. Zoe:

    Thanks for your comment. Panentheism may have a distinction between God and the world but not a separation. An analogy I use, which I learned from John Cooper, is that God is the head and the world is his body. I will look at your posts–thank you for sharing them–but I think that my metaphysical dualism will be an unbridgeable dividing line between us. But please do keep visiting and let’s converse!

  5. Sometimes I feel smart and then I remember to read Dr. Mike blog entries and realize how little I actually know.

    Thanks for encouraging me to think

  6. Dr. Wittmer,
    Any indication of how well read in Platonism McLaren actually is? Or is this just a ‘metanarrative’ that he chooses to rail against because it is a convenient target?

    If McLaren rails against all dualisms, is there any indication that he is aware of say N.T. Wright’s discussion in New Testament and the People of God esp. pp. 252-56 where Wright covers 10 dualities common to the ancient world, four of which were quite common in Judaism, and early in Christian theology. Wright includes here the Creator/creature distinction which would stand against panentheism.

    Not all dualisms are created equal, in fact some were found in Judaism. But if McLaren is against dualism as Greco-Roman, does he then see his thinking as more “Hebraic”, or is he moving beyond to something new?

    Thanks, I’ve appreciated this review so far.

    Tim Bertolet

  7. Darius:

    That is humor with a point! It seems to describe perfectly what Brian is doing here.

  8. You’re doing an amazing job unwrapping and reconstructing this book. I’ve just purchased “Don’t Stop Believing” and I’m excited for it to come in.

    Keep it up brother!

    David

  9. What does McClaren do with the OT and how is it Greco-Roman? There is so much Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative from the first two pages of Genesis all the way through. And it happens to get fulfilled, praise God.

  10. Why do you add the emphasis by bolding things of your choice? It’s not really fair to the person whom you are critiquing. Or, I could say it isn’t ‘just’ for you to color Brian’s words differently than he intended.

  11. Having not read Brian McLaren’s book and appreciating your posts, may I ask if there is a chance he is saying we in the church have misunderstood creation-fall-redemption in Platonic terms, or is it that he thinks we have intentionally adopted Plato’s version? And doesn’t it seem he may be confusing some so-called dualisms with antitheses?

  12. [...] Brian McLaren’s new book, A New Kind of Christianity – intro, question 1, question 2, interlude and question 3. Darryl Dash also has a very helpful review up on his [...]

  13. [...] there have been four posts on this topic. At a point of ‘interlude’, Wittmer observes: The Defining Issue Before I examine Brian’s next question, I think it is important to interact with the foundational [...]

  14. Wow, Dr. Wittmer,
    I never would have guessed that you consider panentheism to be heretical. Pantheism, yes, but panentheism? I would guess you would say that Richard Rohr’s book “Everything Belongs” is a heresy. I would further venture to say you would consider process-relational theology a heresy as well.

    I really was hoping for a more respectful, thoughtful criticism of Brian’s book here, but with the solid stone walls of dualism and Calvinist theology you have surrounding you, I don’t see any chance of it. I really DID expect more of you after having read your book “Heaven is a Place on Earth”. I am very disappointed in your demeaning language.

  15. As heresies go, Panentheism is small potatoes, since we simply don’t deal with God apart from our this-worldly context.

    God said the world was good and that it’s great variety was very good. That suffices for me as why I am not a Panentheist, but I don’t brook others the right to have a theological chip on their shoulder, making them feel that Panentheism is right.

    If it is of God then in the absence of economics-driven church politics slash ecclesial rivalry, we will tend towards it. Otherwise, we get sidetracked on controversies that lead to more heat than light.

    I wish Brian McLaren would read Christoph Riedweg’s book on Pythagoras that does its best with the original materials to infer him as a presocratic philosopher who was a charismatic political-religious leader that imported from his travels abroad into Greco-Roman culture the grist worked upon by Plato/Aristotle a century or so later.

    There’s no good reason to say that, because something Christian is similar to the Neo-Platonism that emerged in the 3rd ctry C.E. as a result of cultural hybridization between Christianity and Middle-Platonism, it ain’t Kosher.

    Neo-Platonism is not the bugaboo for what went wrong with Christianity. A much bigger suspect I would argue is the Obscurantism of Gregory the Great’s time that elevated Augustine’s influence unduly in Western Christianity. But it’s a cumulative process with lots of good and bad steps and (I believe) the HS was involved, but not behind every development, at each step along the way.

    Brian McLaren seems to be a bit full of himself and still over-reacting to his roots, which may be producing more heat than light.
    dlw

  16. These are such important posts. Thank you for taking time to apply real thought and patient theology in replying.

    As I recall one of my philosophy professors in seminary noted the rising accusation concerning the overbearing influence of Greek philosophy against Christianity. He pointed out that the accusation is very shortsighted because there is a wide variety of Greek philosophical content out there.

    He called it: The Overly Greek Accusation…or TOGA argument…

    As a note, I am absolutely compelled to ask…why does Brian McLaren, a very good man no doubt, who has no formal theological training and has, as I have seen, spurned any kind of accountability for his far reaching theological statements, the ideal person to suggest such a drastic overhaul to the nature of the Church and our read of Scripture?

    Keeping in mind that nothing that Pastor McLaren has suggested is remotely new or innovative, but rather just a rehashing of former points by other people.

    Peace, love, and keep Jesus First
    PreachinJesus

  17. one can still value the questions that McLaren is raising, even if one disagrees at points with his answers.

    Hopefully, McLaren will be persuaded that some of his views are not helpful or that the gist of his point or motivation can be restated in more irenic terms.

    dlw

  18. [...] orthodoxy. Tim Challies has a great concise review, and Dr. Mike Wittmer is interacting with the content chapter by [...]

  19. [...] *Interlude: The Defining Issue—The Creation/Fall/Redemption Narrative [...]

  20. @WidiSwift13 3 unfollowed you between 7AM and 8AM. See who: http://t.co/x75PnCiF

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