Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, Question 4

Who is Jesus and Why is he important?

Brian begins this section with a good reminder that we must beware of the temptation to remake Jesus into our own image.  I wish he had followed his own advice, for his Jesus ends up looking a lot like a beefed up Brian McLaren.  This section reminded me of Gilligan warning the professor and skipper to “watch out lest they fall into the tra-a-a-a-p” (sound of the disappearing Gilligan).

Brian observes a potential problem with the Bible’s depiction of Jesus.  Rev. 19:11-16 says that Jesus will appear riding a white horse, leading the armies of heaven to make war.  A sharp sword from his mouth strikes the nations, whom he then rules with a rod of iron as he treads “the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.”  Most perplexing is that this passage comes at the end of Scripture, so unlike the Noah narrative in our last post, John’s vision represents a more fully evolved God.  Brian can’t explain it away with later revelation.

Brian solves this problem by declaring that Revelation is an apocalyptic of the oppressed whose point is that the way of peace modeled by the suffering Jesus will ultimately triumph over evil and its perpetrators.  There is some truth here, but it’s characteristically lopsided in Brian’s hands.  He ignores the part about Jesus treading the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God and insists that Jesus will not return to this earth as a conquering hero who destroys his enemies.  Instead, Jesus will never be anything other than “the poor unarmed Galilean riding on the donkey.”  The point of Rev. 19:11-16, if you can believe it, is “that God’s anointed liberator is the one we beat up, who promises mercy to those who strike him….”

Five observations:

1. Brian’s God is too small.  He really needs to let God evolve beyond the Jesus meek and mild.  God is as loving as Brian says—and more, but he is also holy and just and has a fair amount of wrath which he will unleash on sin and those who commit it.

2. In two chapters on the question, “Who is Jesus?”, it is disturbing that Brian nowhere says that Jesus is God.  This is the most important thing we can say about Jesus (alongside he is human), and it’s troubling that Brian never got around to saying it.  Especially since he professes kinship with Marcus Borg, Harvey Cox, Pete Rollins, and John Crossan, folks who either deny or refuse to say whether Jesus is God, he needs to clearly say that Jesus is ontologically God and man.  He doesn’t, leaving us to assume that at the very least Jesus’ deity does not excite Brian as much as his example of patient suffering.

3. Brian’s Jesus seems to be a mere human who liberates us from violence by providing an example of peace for us to follow.  Brian writes that “Jesus matters precisely because he provides us a living alternative to the confining Greco-Roman narrative” of violence.  This is wrong.  Jesus matters precisely because he is the God-man who bore our sin in our place on the cross and rose again.  His non-violent example is an important application of our salvation, but it is not the main thing.

4.  Brian’s Jesus is not new, nor is he a third way which transcends the liberal-conservative divide.  Brian follows a liberal Jesus, one remade in his image and according to his liking, whose mere example is not enough to save us in this life nor in the life to come.

If Brian’s theology is new, then how did H. Richard Niebuhr so aptly describe it in 1959?  Niebuhr wrote that liberals believe that “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”  History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

5. The most damning indictment of Brian’s theology is that Jesus isn’t absolutely necessary for it to work.  If Jesus is merely our example of patient suffering, then other examples may do just as well.  As such, Brian’s theology is an unintended assault on Jesus.  Brian has unwittingly begun to marginalize Jesus, and it won’t be long before an unnecessary Jesus becomes an absent Jesus.  How ironic that Brian’s concern for the excluded and the marginalized leads him to exclude and marginalize Jesus!

Here is an essential question which Brian and all of us must answer:  How and why is Jesus essential for our salvation?  Could God save us in any other way?  See Anselm, Why God Became Man, for an orthodox answer from the 11th century.

17 Comments

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  1. Well, I don’t think other examples negate Jesus, inasmuch as I think Jesus’ example is the origins of other’s nonviolent resistance as well (aka, Gandhi studied Tolstoy’s commentary on the politics of Jesus).

    Jesus in Rev is the avenger, but the point is that God and God alone is the one to serve such judgement. Jesus, as God’s anthropocentric self-revelation for humanity, rejected the way of the Zealot. This is paradoxical, not contradictory. In both cases, sin leads to death and in the case of the Zealots to believe the problem is getting the “right” people into power thru whatever (violent) means necessary and that God will intevene on their behalf (as in the movie Avatar) was folly that led to much death/destruction in 70 CE.

    I haven’t read Brian’s book, but I’d say he’s more right than wrong to emph Jesus as nonviolent. We’re always better focusing on the passages we understand than trying to speculate on the basis of stuff we don’t understand and so Brian McLaren doesn’t get Revelations. Who cares? Most Christians don’t get it and those that think they do are sometimes the worse.

    Revelations is often construed as more about the use of the Daniel-style apocalyptic literature to deal with the issues of the persecuted Church in the 1st ctry of its existence.

    This is wholly consistent w Jesus being a man of peace and other passages that preach against rebellion.

    dlw

  2. Jesus also provided an alt to the confining ways of the Sadduccees(party-bosses), Pharisees (Public Intellectuals), Zealots (Marxist-communists), and those at Qumran (Radical Anabaptist counter-cultural types?).

    It sounds like Brian is leaning a little too hard on the hellenistic vs hebraic motif.

    dlw

  3. Very interesting, McLaren while following Crossan/Borg is really treading the line of Wrede who actually sought his search into the historical Jesus for the sole reason of destroying the Christian faith. This line of thought characterizes the Jesus Seminar line by line.

    A much needed correction to this ‘marginalized Jesus’ is N.T. Wright’s ‘Jesus and the Victory of God.’

    Your question of: “How and why is Jesus essential for our salvation?” is important, but I don’t think we can answer your question accurately, without first asking, “Who WAS Jesus?”

  4. Sounds like the Socinian Jesus. The stress falls on the prophet and exemplar, not upon the priestly work and kingly rule. What kind of Jesus does he think is needed to deal with the problem of sin and its consequences? One who is God and man? Merely a teacher to guide the way?

  5. Well, I don’t think the comment accurately portrays what Brian wrote. He wrote that Jesus is the Word of God, King of kings, and Lord of lords. And he indicates that we should worship “Christ and him crucified.” He notes that Jesus is God’s only son.

    He doesn’t use the words “Jesus is God” in these chapters, but that seems implicit in what he wrote. And his language does to me imply that Jesus is essential. There is no other King of kings and Lord of lords. By definition, there can be only one. And Brian is quite clear who that one is.

    I know it is hard for many, including apparently Wittmer, to accept that the Jesus who refused to fight with worldly weapons and accepted a humiliating death actually conquered death and won the victory. It does challenge our world’s assumptions. It is easier to say that this “Jesus meek and mild” is not the real Jesus and read into Revelation a very different one than to accept the Upside-Down Kingdom Jesus proclaimed. But it misses the point.

    And does “Jesus meek and mild” really describe the Jesus Brian writes about? Brian writes about Jesus as a liberator who turns things upside down. This is not the conventional understanding of meek and mild.

    Wittmer seems too ready to put Brian in a box of what he calls the “liberal Jesus.” But the box doesn’t fit, just like the box into which Wittmer seems to want to stuff Jesus.

    It seems to me it is Wittmer who wants to make Jesus too small by making him in the image of worldly conquerors. Jesus is above that, which Brian understands.

    Revelation actually doesn’t make much sense if one tries to take it literally. Brian is right that it was never meant to be taken that way, but rather it is apocalyptic literature.

  6. Bill:

    Arius could say everything about Jesus which you cited. The Nicene Creed responded with explicit statements that Jesus is God, of the same essence with the Father. Is it too much to ask purported leaders of the church to be explicitly Nicene?
    Especially since Brian says that he is creating a new kind of Christianity, a Christianity which includes many leaders who deny Jesus’ deity, it is incumbent on him to explicitly say that Jesus is God. I can’t give such a gifted communicator the benefit of the doubt (it’s probably not a benign omission). With that said, I hope you’re right that Brian does indeed believe in the deity of Jesus Christ.

  7. “History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Classic! Only from Mike Wittmer can you get an application of Mark Twain to Brian McLaren.

    In all seriousness Mike, thanks for this series and your observations on the many serious problems with McLaren’s theology.

  8. Also note that elsewhere in the book Brian refers to the doctrine of the deity of Christ in a manner which clearly indicates he believes in it.

  9. Excellent observations!!

  10. I will concede that Brian opens himself up to some of the skepticism by the phraseology A New Kind of Christian. That’s accurate in only a very limited way, and can be quite misleading. It naturally leads one to think he’s throwing out all that comes before, although if you actually read what he writes, he certainly is not.

    This kind of Christianity was new to Brian, quite different from what he experienced growing up. It is also new to many others who grew up in institutional Christianity. But in fact it is 2 millenia old, and has been preached by some in every era. It is largely what my father preached every Sunday some 60 years ago.

    In the larger sense, we don’t need a new kind of Christianity. We need a recovery of authentic Christianity. And this is actually what Brian advocates.

    Brian has elsewhere referred to himself as post-liberal and post-conservative. But what he writes is really also pre-liberal and pre-conservative as well. And in fact, Brian loves a lot of pre-modern Christian expressions.

    The terminology is used, I think, to appeal to a particular audience turned off by what they have heard and seen of Christianity. But with other audiences, it leaves a false impression. This is something that has always bothered me about Brian’s writings.

    But this doesn’t justify forming a stereotype around this kind of language, and then trying to twist everything Brian writes into that stereotype. I wish Wittmer would comment on what Brian actually wrote rather than a caricature of it.

  11. So here’s a little blurb on Mike’s apparent hero, Athanasius, who “helped” form the creed:
    “Along with the standard method of excommunication he used beatings, intimidation, kidnapping and imprisonment to silence his theological opponents. Unsurprisingly, these tactics caused widespread distrust and led him to being tried many times for “bribery, theft, extortion, sacrilege, treason and murder.”
    –from “When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome” by Richard E. Rubenstein – a fascinating and eye-opening history of how the Church of the Empire conducted “business”. Hint: not a pretty picture.

  12. Bill Samuel,

    I’m going to assume you have a copy of ANKoChristianity so would you mind turning with me to the bottom of Page 118.

    Instead, the character of the living God is like the character of Jesus. And later, When you see him, you are getting the best view afforded to humans of the character of God.

    And then the top of page 132;
    And the term “Christ” or “Messiah” literally means “anointed one,” suggesting a king or leader chosen by God to – like Moses – liberate the people from oppression.

    Is Jesus God or not? I hate to ask these kind of questions, but Brian is a good enough writer (he’s actual a good writer) to not create these kind of issues. The fact that he cites the key influence of Cox, Borg and Crossan in his work should be cause enough for concern about where Brian stands on the Divinity of Christ. (Brian believes the Creeds were designed by Constantine-controlled clergy to further control the people, [ANKoChristianity pg 12] so can one even ask if he agrees with the Apostles or Nicene Creeds in terms of who Jesus is in them.)

    Borg, who says in Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (Pg 182) We are quite certain that Jesus did not think of himself as divine or as “Son of God” in any unique sense, if at all. In describing the Ascension, Borg says this, There is a further reason the story cannot be taken literally. Namely, one cannot imagine it happening. Really? Because you can’t imagine it, the story cannot be taken literally.

    This is not guilt by association. Brian identifies Borg and Cox as key leaders in his understanding of ANKoChristianity in his first chapter and you can find them along with Crossan in many places in his footnotes.

    Mike is asking a fair question as to who Brian McLaren says Jesus is? Is Jesus fully God and fully man, the 2nd Person of the Trinity or not? It’s a simple enough question.

    But I confess, as a reasonably bright person (though some may disagree), that it is a question I’m left asking in ANKoChristianity. Perhaps I’ve missed the spot in the book where he spells it out completely and you can point in out to me, Bill (Samuel).

    Thanks.

  13. So in every book that a Christian author writes, if they don’t address each and every bullet point of the Nicene creed somewhere in the course of the chapters, they need to at least have an appendix section to finish the job so that there is NO doubt that they “sign on” to each and every bullet point. It that what you need in order to find value in a Christian author’s writings?

  14. Bill Kinnon, Brian quotes a number of people in his first chapter, but doesn’t define any of them as “key leaders in his understanding.” By cherry picking 2 of them, and then trying to associate Brian with everything they have written, or your interpretation of same, you seem to be reaching for a way to discredit Brian rather than to truly understand what he is saying. I certainly disagree with the Borg quote, but that quote is not in Brian’s book, and I doubt that he agrees with it.

    I have the Kindle version of the book, not the hard copy, so I can’t look up by page number your creed reference. I think you may be referring to a summary Brian makes of some points by Harvey Cox. It’s not the language you use, however, and Brian doesn’t here state his own view of the creeds. Elsewhere, he approvingly quotes the Apostles Creed (which, when he was pastor, he often had the congregation repeat). If you read his Generous Orthodoxy, you’ll see that he expressed agreement with the creeds. I can’t say for sure whether his position on them has since changed. I sort of doubt it, but I really don’t know.

  15. Bill S,
    Here’s what Brian says, on page 12, the seventh last graph of his introduction, describing Cox’s Age of Belief in Brian’s own words, in reference to Constantine’s supposed conversion,

    … and Christianity then entered into a troubling alliance with his Roman Empire. In that alliance, unity of belief became politically useful – and enforceable. So the empire that had crucified Jesus now claimed to be the agent, patron, and police force of a newly dominated Christian religion. As such, it demanded the full allegiance of all believers. In order to promote unity in the church and in the empire, the emperor mandated that the bishops gather to develop creeds, thus enlisting the clergy to help enforce submission to the emperor’s regime. The Roman Empire could thus claim to be validated by the God of the Christians, not just the Greco-Roman pantheon. Thus the Age of Belief was born. [emphasis added]

    I apologize if I have taken editorial license in saying Brian identifies Borg and Cox as “key leaders”. He identifies Cox’ book, The Future of Faith, as one of the two books that “have contributed to the dialogue in an especially helpful way.” That dialogue about a “defining moment (that) had come, a moment of deep shift, a moment in which a new kind of Christianity needed to be born.” Of Borg’s “emerging mission” (and the related positions of Jones, Pagitt, Butler Bass, Tickle and Cox) he says, “That what a new kind of Christianity in this book’s title points toward.”

    And my very question regarding Borg’s quote is to ask Brian, where do you stand on this? Brian brought Borg into the conversation. Is it not fair to ask where their theological understandings converge and diverge – especially as Borg denies the divinity of Christ.

    And why do you ascribe motives when you say I’m “reaching for a way to discredit Brian rather than to truly understand what he is saying.” Because I disagree and ask questions I’m trying to discredit Brian? Really?

    I’m getting rather tired of “shaming” being used as a way to defend Brian.

    And may I say Bill, as one Bill to another🙂, I’ve been reading Brian since A New Kind of Christian and was powerfully impacted by that book, I’ve heard Brian speak at least three times, have shot three interviews with him and I’m much less willing than you to suggest what Brian does and does not agree with – which is the reason for my question(s).

    I believe that Brian has been on a trajectory. I think ANKoChristianity is pretty explicit about what that trajectory is – and that trajectory makes me profoundly sad. But I also would say that I chose to ignore things in Brian’s earlier books about his trajectory – fitting him into my understanding of the Kingdom rather than choosing to see what was actually there.

    No doubt my response won’t please you, but please don’t ascribe nefarious motives to it. Engage with the quotes and help me understand better if you can. (Not a challenge but rather a plea.)

  16. Bill Kinnon, the quote is what I gathered you were referencing. My point is that Brian didn’t address the substance of the principal creeds – Apostles and Nicene – we use.

    There are somewhat different takes on a “new kind” of Christianity in the various authors cited. Tickle, for example, posits that about every 500 years, there’s a big effort within Christianity to sort our what they’re doing that needs to be discarded and what is essential. Brian clearly sees himself as part of the process. In Generous Orthodoxy, it is clear that he doesn’t just jettison the ancient expressions, but he allows for some variation in understanding. I appreciate this position because, for example, the creeds imply certain beliefs are essential when nowhere in the NT is it indicated they are (while not including some things which the NT seems to regard as essentials). I may generally agree with them, but I’m not bothered by others having some problems with them as long as they unite with what the NT indicates is essential.

    I probably shouldn’t have ascribed motives to you. I did think you took things out of context. But I don’t honestly know your motives. I apologize for that.

    I am a member of Cedar Ridge Community Church, which Brian founded, and Brian was pastor when I joined. This may give me a somewhat different perspective on him.

    It is certainly legitimate to ask questions of Brian, and he encourages that. Don’t always expect they will be answered within the framework under which they’re asked. Note in the Gospels that Jesus usually didn’t answer questions (particularly from religious leaders) within the framework within which they are asked. Questions generally carry assumptions within them. If the assumptions are not fully shared, it is really not appropriate to answer them quite directly. Doing so would essentially adopt the assumptions underlying the questions.

  17. I would like to see whether or not Jesus plays an essential role later in Brian’s book.

    I remember reading Graeme Goldsworthy saying something to the effect that if your exegesis could be agreed upon by a Jew or a Muslim, it wasn’t Christian exegesis. Sounds similar to what you’re saying McLaren’s doing with Jesus here. If Muslims or Jews can get along with your picture of Jesus, it’s likely not Christian.

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