DA Carson and the Emergent Movement, Part 6

No one who reads Brian McLaren or who finds him to be a significant theologian can afford not to read the seventh chapter of DA Carson’s book. Here’s what I mean: if DA Carson is right, McLaren’s book is seriously problematic and not just in a pedantic or miniscule way: if DA Carson is right, McLaren is seriously wrong.

Here’s DA Carson’s essential conclusion: “Every chapter of this book [Generous Orthodoxy] succumbs to the same elementary analysis. Every chapter has some useful insights, and every chapter overstates arguments, distorts history, attaches excessively negative terms to all the things with McLaren disagrees (even when they have been part of the heritage of confessional Christianity for two thousand years), and almost never engages the Scriptures except occasionally in prooftexting ways” (180). My friends, this is no small charge.

DA Carson takes McLaren to task for what he says about the Seven Jesuses we can know (the views he likes are snippets rather than the substance of that tradition – and DA Carson is right here, as I am a specialist in these sorts of things and I thought McLaren was out to lunch here), for what he means by “evangelical,” for what it means to be “biblical” – and here Carson seriously trots out problems for McLaren’s views about the atonement, about hell, and about ethical issues, for what it means to be “protestant,” and for what it means to be “fundamental.”

Then DA Carson devotes just six pages to Chalke’s “The Lost Message of Jesus” (which I haven’t read). Similar issues; similar problems. It is not important (so far as I am concerned) to get into what he has to say about Chalke.

Let me express where DA Carson ends: “I have to say, as kindly but as forcefully as I can, that to my mind, if words mean anything both McLaren and Chalke have largely abandoned the gospel” (186).

DA Carson more than once now has said that McLaren is guilty of “the angry young man syndrome” (though to my knowledge, such a diagnosis is not a part of DSM IV). What he means, whether a diagnosis or not, is that McLaren is a reactionary against his (Plymouth Brethren) past and has overreacted into imbalanced views.

#1: When DA Carson says on p. 157 that “most emergent leaders regard as their preeminent thinker and writer” is he accurate? I know of five major leaders: McLaren, Tony Jones, Andrew Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Dan Kimball. I don’t know if DA Carson has asked them this, but I suspect Carson is speaking for the leaders here. Too bad. But, it is the case that McLaren is the one emergent writer who is most read – unless you start reading the bloggers, and then I suspect Andrew Jones plays the main game. So, the question becomes one more time: Is McLaren to be seen as the leading light of the Emergent movement?

#2: Is DA Carson fair to McLaren’s “Generous Orthodoxy”? Let me tip my own hand so you can see a portion of my own cards here: I read McLaren immediately when it came out, or when I first saw it, and I can say that he often humored me and just as often made me think this one thought: McLaren knows more of what he “does not” believe than what he “does” believe. Which means he is disaffected and in a stage of reaction. Now that was my read; I could be wrong. And it does not matter one bit that I had this impression because McLaren could be right about everything and be a reactionary. I didn’t like his introduction, and his stance that everyone is against him, and that you might not like the book and if you don’t toss it away or take it back and get your money back. I don’t find this sort of thing anything better than churlish and even silly. That may say something about me, though. Still, I found him engaging and worthy of reading. I disagreed often.

#3: Now the biggie: if the Emergent movement finds McLaren’s theology its heart and soul, we are entitled to ask this one simple question: is this theology orthodoxy? is it biblical? is it evangelical? I am pleading with Emergent leaders to ask these questions and to ask, along with them, another one: how does one make knowledge claims about theology? That is, if you say you “know” something to be theologically true (or whatever word you might want to use), how do you come to such conclusions? Do you just “think” it and because you think it find yourself right? Or do you process what you think on the basis of the Bible and in light of the Great Traditions of the Church? And if you are “evangelical” (as McLaren says he is) then how do you define an “evangelical”? Can one take the by-pass around the great reformers and the 17th-18th theologians (and I’ll put Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley and their like in the loop) and still claim to be evangelical? Well, these are important questions, my friend, wherever you find yourself lined up in this debate.

#4: Finally, what is an Emergent Christian? Are there all kinds?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3991491 Rey

    Very interesting. Out of all the stuff I’ve read on the Net about this group, this is the first time that I’m stopping and realizing the need to actually look at them. That bit about abandoning the gospel is always a heavy charge–all the more when it comes from someone saturated in the Word.-r-

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/1259303 Justin

    “Here’s DA Carson’s essential conclusion: ‘Every chapter of this book [Generous Orthodoxy] succumbs to the same elementary analysis.’”Scot-Thanks for your thorough and excellent review of Carson’s book. I have to say that I think Carson is arguing against a book McLaren didn’t write. If he expects an “analysis” and theological proof, he’s not going to find it, so of course the book is going to fall short.I think Carson is looking for something more along the lines of NT Wright’s New Testament and the People of God, in which a postmodern, story-centered epistemology is argued, and on which basis McLaren’s approach to scripture could be justified. Carson might as well chastise him for not including a decent chapter on thermodynamics.McLaren is not going to provide that; he is simply trying to show that a) no one Christian tradition has everthing right; and b) every Christian tradition has something to offer.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/1259303 Justin

    “#3: Now the biggie: if the Emergent movement finds McLaren’s theology its heart and soul, we are entitled to ask this one simple question: is this theology orthodoxy? is it biblical? is it evangelical?”I don’t think McLaren’s theology is at the heart of the EC. McLaren is a writer and pastor, not theologian. He is giving voice to the ideas of:Stan GrenzNT WrightDallas WilliardHauerwaus & WillimonWendell Berryand others, who are all great thinkers, but not exactly quick reads. He’s not trying to be a heavy-duty theologian, even as his writing is intensely and inescapably theological.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/1259303 Justin

    “DA Carson more than once now has said that McLaren is guilty of “the angry young man syndrome” (though to my knowledge, such a diagnosis is not a part of DSM IV). What he means, whether a diagnosis or not, is that McLaren is a reactionary against his (Plymouth Brethren) past and has overreacted into imbalanced views.”I have met Brian on several occasions, and he strikes me as possibly the least angry person I have ever known. He is also not what most people would call young, though he’s probably younger than Carson. Finally, I would think it would be hard to read all the way through A Generous Orthodoxy and still call it “unbalanced.” McLaren is arguing that each branch of the Christian family tree is a little unbalanced without the others, hence the need for a generous orthodoxy. McLaren is not trying to be a “balanced” 5-point Calivinst, and I understand a lot of the criticism he is receiving is from Calvinists who (young or not) are angry that he is drawing people away from the hardline stances of Calivist theology.Once again, Carson has raised some good questions, but I think ad hominem arguments are not appropriate, from Carson or anyone else. Referring offhandedly to someone else’s worldview and theology as a psychosis is not a good way to have an intelligent debate.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    I’ve known DA Carson for a long time, and I found his stuff at the ad hominem level very surprising for him and at times misguided. He almost did deconstructive work here — so and so is this and that is all his ideas are supporting.But, thanks for your words about Brian. I sat next to him last year and didn’t find him angry either. But, he is protesting his PB past.

  • http://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com Byron Borger

    There is so much here to think about and process and I thank you for your efforts, and your desire to be fair to both McLaren & Carson. Others are discussing the more substantive stuff, but I wanted to add a note about your dislike of McLaren’s morbid opening—the book may not be worth reading, take your money back, etc. Some readers found this to be a hoot–very funny (you found it churlish?) It seemed to me pretty obvious that it was a clever take-off on the very popular Lemony Snicket Unfortunate children’s books (you know those postmodern hipsters, always down with the current trends!) Anyway, thanks for the good hard work…


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