McLaren: A Response to The Last Word and the Word After That

McLaren’s The Last Word and the Word After That

This is a slightly edited version of an earlier blog.

In this blog I will interact with Brian McLaren’s helpful and provocative new book that seeks to deconstruct “hell” language as a rhetoric that sets people on edge in order to persuade them to embrace a gospel that creates a community of persons who live a life of love of God and Others for the good of the world. Overall, I could not agree more with the focus of this gospel and the sort of life God calls us to live. If one wants to narrow this book down to what it says about hell, and what his theory is about hell, go ahead — but the book has a larger topic so far as I read it. The book is about how “to do gospeling” today.

I will record a series of positive observations and some criticisms.

McLaren has exposed, though he’s not the first, the fundamental weaknesses of the evangelical gospel presentation that we have imbibed from our ancestors. In particular, he has shown that Evangelicals have futurized the gospel. Here he appeals too simply to the 5th Century and after where he sees overemphasis on heaven and hell, and he anchors the overemphasis on a variety of social and theological conditions. Still, the focus on heaven and hell of the later church is out of step with Jesus and the NT. The gospel cannot (read: should not) be turned into a mechanism whereby Christians can find a secure eternity nor should it be used to justify a lack of concern with this world. The gospel is designed to transform humans into a community of the kingdom of God. The difficulty of abandoning hell/heaven as a warrant for the gospel will not be easy, and I’m not sure it ever can be completely avoided — does not final significance count? But, still, McLaren has this point right: futurizing the gospel turns the gospel into a gasbag gospel.

McLaren has also exposed, again not the first, the spiritualization of the gospel. Again, he traces this briefly into various social conditions, but the point is the same: the gospel is not something just for our spirits or our souls, but for the entire person – heart, soul, mind, and strength – and it designed by God to create an alternative human condition – a community of faith that exhibits and works for love and justice and God’s will. In short, the kingdom of God. This, too, is very welcome.

McLaren has also clarified and called us into more rigorous Bible study and theological reflection on what “hell” means – in particular, he deconstructs it as a piece of rhetoric designed to provoke humans into consideration of what they are doing that is wrong and the fearful consequences of what this wrong-doing will do to themselves and others and our world. As far as I can see, McLaren believes in an Eternity that will correlate somehow – he’s not clear here – with how we’ve lived here and what we’ve made ourselves to be.

McLaren is especially good on the gospel. On p. 171 he, in the words of a correspondent to Dan from Chip (who is discovering the gospel Dan Poole has learned who has learned it from Neo/Neil), he contrasts those who think the fundamental gospel questions are whether or not one is certain one would be with God if one died or, secondly, if Jesus were to return. This is futurization. In contrast, Chip sees these two questions: if one was to live another 50 years, what would one want to be like or become and, secondly, if Jesus didn’t return for ten million years what would one like the world to be like? I find these questions more apposite what the Bible teaches.

McLaren is clearly shaped by a postmodernist linguistic turn that limits what we know and about what we can be certain. His quotation of Dante, on p. 174, puts this all in focus: “… many times the word comes short of fact.” In other words, try as we might, our theological articulations of truth are approximate and probings rather than some kind of transcendent truth propositions.

From the negative, I mention two (earlier I had blogged four comments, but have edited those down). I give these in the shape of questions now.

First, how do the theologies of Paul, Peter, and Hebrews fit into the holistic gospel that McLaren’s characters espouse in this novel? In all of this discussion about the gospel there is a constant need for us to check the entire NT and to play Jesus’ vision of the kingdom along with the Pauline vision of salvation (and all his terms) and Peter’s vision and Hebrews’ vision. This is what tends to happen: before long we either socialize Paul – McLaren offers a brief on justification along these lines – or we spiritualize Jesus — which is a beef for Neil and Dan Poole and then Chip (who is growing into this). Let me be frank: I do think the social justice vision of Jesus is inherent to the gospel, but I’m not sure that we are fair to the NT until we put the soteriology of Romans into play. (Sure, Dunn and Wright have tried just this, but they need to be brought into the discussion more clearly for this sort of gospel vision to gain a foothold.) In other words, I’m not sure McLaren’s ecclesiology and gospel are sufficiently sectarian to conform to the NT evidence. Which means I think Paul’s stance and surely Peter’s and Hebrews’ visions are sectarian (they are not ready for a full-scale social vision). Perhaps McLaren thinks Jesus’ vision of the gospel was actually bigger than the rest of the NT. I do not hold this view to be impossible, but I can’t think of anyone who argues for it.

It should be clear that this poses a very interesting question: has the sectarian vision of the NT been suspended? Was it suspended with the rise of Constantine? John Howard Yoder’s last book, the one on the Jewish-Christian schism, contended that the Church must sustain its sectarian status. (Which is not to say that it has to be a ghetto.) Maybe McLaren has written about this and I just haven’t seen it.

Second, why do we urbanize systemic evil? There is a tendency for those of us (and I include myself) who believe in a holistic gospel to urbanize the problems, as if the only real problems in the world are to be found in the urban areas – poverty, drugs, systemic violence, AIDS, and the like. I agree that Jesus made the poor one of his foci and I agree that the marginalized are to be given urgent attention. But, all humans are in need of God’s embracing grace and that means suburbanites and farmers in Iowa and ski resort workers and wealthy business persons as well. God’s restoring grace that regenerates cracked Eikons is designed to take all of our crackedness and to transform it – through Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost – into the community God wants to exist in order to show off his glory and grace and lead us into the perichoretic love of our blessed triune God. I find suburbanites just as full of cracks as urbanites.

Overall, what we find in McLaren is a holistic gospel and I couldn’t agree more with the direction that sort of macro-biblical thinking does for us and for what our vocation is.

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  • J B Hood

    “Overall, what we find in McLaren is a holistic gospel and I couldn’t agree more with the direction that sort of macro-biblical thinking does for us and for what our vocation is.” I agree with your last paragraph completely–but direction isn’t everything, even if it is critical.Two thoughts to add to your negatives:1) I think the stripping of the kingdom from its “heirs apparent” indicated in J’s parables and in, e.g., Matt 3:7-12, 8:11-12 should function as a trenchant warning even for present day readers, particularly when we approach the question of vocation as suggested. James 2 seems pretty clear–security is a sham if our vocation more closely resembles “unemployment.”2) You don’t even have to go to Paul’s letters to “get future”. In Acts 17:31, Paul seems perfectly okay with using judgment (presumably based, at least in part, on repentance, v. 30?) to evangelize/gospel-ize. Should we run away from declaring God’s future judgment?Granted we need far more Gospel in the present (particularly in my own context, the American South), don’t we also “need” a future element?Jason

  • Anonymous

    Isn’t the most dangerous kind of teaching in the church always going to contain both good and bad? How many false teachers ever think they’re really teaching error?I think if some conservatives narrow down McClaren’s book to its focus on hell then I actually agree with you Scot that that’s a problem as the problem with McClaren’s work is wider and bigger than that. His thinking on hell is wide of the mark but what, in my opinion, makes a book like this dangerous for confessional evangelicalism is precisely the fact that it has so much good stuff in it about holism etc. What makes dangerous teaching dangerous is precisely the fact that it’s so terribly mixed and does not present the whole counsel of God as you outline re. Paul and Hebrews etc. What do we make of this? Is it really just a case of ‘C’mon Brian, you left out a few bits, read a bit wider’ or does what is left out actually have a distorting effect on what is included because it’s not the whole picture? Cf. Paul in Acts 20 where he compares his faithful ministry of presenting the whole counsel of God with teachers who arise from within the people of God – false teachers are never outsiders – and distort the truth. Is it possible to argue that McClaren’s work distorts the truth and if not, what would count as distorting it? His gospel is holistic in the sense of being related to the whole person/whole of life, but can it really be described as biblically holistic when it does not take in the whole of Scripture? What counts as holism?Further, I write from a confessionally Reformed perspective. What constantly amazes me in discussions about McClaren is how excited everyone gets about his love for life/holism/creation etc versus American evangelicalism’s futurization of the gospel etc. You don’t have to be McClaren to hold to these things and Reformed theology at its best holds to them without any of his unhelpful reductionisms as well. Check out, for instance, the writings/thinkings of Peter Leithart or Douglas Wilson, for instance. It seems the vision of those McClaren is reacting against and those reacting positively to him is insularly connected to an American evangelicalism desparately trying to emerge out of fundamentalism but just not really knowing how to do this while remaining fully confessionally orthodox.I am sorry for the stong feelings here and I hope you don’t deem these inpolite, as I don’t mean to be.Bill.

  • JB Hood,Yes we need a future, and McLaren has one in this book — but he wants to shift the emphasis from “living for the future” to “living for today”.Bill,I’m thinking Romans 8 isn’t far from a cosmic grasp of the gospel. Stuhlmacher’s little book on Paul’s theology has a wonderful chart on this.The danger, of course, is letting ecclesiology be swallowed up by cosmology; or of ecclesiology swallowing up cosmology.I’m thinking with McLaren and grateful for the thinking he’s forcing me to do. You, too?

  • I have not read the book yet, but I agree with what you are presenting here Scot. Just one questions about the future though: How does “the judgement” play into all of this? Is there going to be one? Should we care?

  • Final accountability is a necessary correlate of God’s love and holiness, and it is profoundly biblical. But, in my estimation, is a mistake to make that the fundamental warrant for “gospel.” Parents don’t want their kids to do things “because you’ll be punished” and the fundamental structure of proper biblical morality is redemption and covenant relationship. It seems to me that this is one of the directions McLaren is going.On whether or not McLaren or anyone else is “discovering” something is not quite the way to take this: those enthusiastic for their own recent perceptions often confuse their insights with the origins. I see this as enthusiasm and not some historic claims for originality.I’ll do what I can on the blogging front from Italy.

  • J B Hood

    “Final accountability is a necessary correlate of God’s love and holiness, and it is profoundly biblical. But, in my estimation, is a mistake to make that the fundamental warrant for “gospel.” Parents don’t want their kids to do things “because you’ll be punished” and the fundamental structure of proper biblical morality is redemption and covenant relationship. It seems to me that this is one of the directions McLaren is going.”Thanks for the thoughts Prof. McKnight, and the chance to think and learn with you (and McLaren).I agree whole-heartedly that the judgment has been elevated in evangelical American gospel-ing beyond all reason and biblical warrant. Nonetheless, it does seem to stand as a warrant in Scripture; Hebrews, James (2:13 inter alia), Acts 17:31, I Cor 3:10-15, Rev 1-3 to pick a smattering of NT texts; as if God, knowing our weakness, wishes to let the reality of judgment confont us (as believers and unbelievers), for our own good.I track with you, NTW and others on passages like 1 Cor 15:58, where the future is important precisely because of its import for the PRESENT. I just think part of me feels, deep down, that I can’t wind up with a message that denigrates the efforts of the street preacher down on Beale Street…(even if he is using Matt 24 incorrectly!)Enjoy Italy, but watch out for rioting and sackcloth and ashes in Milan–their soccer/football club lost the European Championship today after leading at halftime 3-0.

  • Anonymous

    Scot:I love your blog.I have a couple of questions. Does John not have a distinct vision of either salvation or the kingdom (as you mentioned Jesus, Paul, Peter and Hebrews)? Secondly, just what do we mean by sectarian – 1) as you mentioned in reference to Paul, Peter and Hebrews, and 2) in the JH Yoder book you referred to? Does it mean Jesus-centered, or does it refer to a 1st century Jewish context, or what?Thank you,

  • lepfreak

    hello Scot… this is the first time i’m visiting your blog, i was referred to the McLaren entry from a friend’s website. while i’m not familiar with your work, or the work of Brian McLaren, what i read here reminds me of something i thought of some time ago to help me respond more effectively to ppl who ask me questions essentially fitting the template, “are you saying if i don’t believe in your God i’m going to hell?” and my impression at the moment is that my answer basically encapsulates some parts of the discussion being held here…i’m sure there are ppl who’ve come up with the same thing i have, and are expounding on it as i type, but my answer to such questions is basically this, “that’s not the point, what i’m trying to tell you is you’re missing out on heaven right here, right now.”the next question would be what “heaven” means, and i think subsequent elaboration would then have to be biblically grounded AND sensitive to the needs and situation of the particular person i’m talking to. but yeah… i definitely agree that there is a need to move away from heaven-hell modes of thinking and rhetoric in the sense that we over-futurise faith. i believe that holism demands consideration of eternal consequences as well, but it really does not help the purpose of spreading the Good News when the first thing that comes out of one’s mouth is (either figuratively or literally), “you’re going to hell my friend.” i wouldn’t think that sounds like good news at all.on the point of sectarianism, i would agree that there are parts of the Bible not ready for full-scale social vision. some ppl will be ready to receive, but many more will not. but of course that in no way negates the need to teach what the Bible says. just we’d need to adjust what the Word reveals according to how far along any given individual is in terms of their faith or potential acceptance of the Gospel. we can’t encourage or allow distortion, dilution and/or standing still, but we do need to allow periods of time for the word to sink in, for God to speak to those particular ppl while they are still struggling with parts they don’t understand, or find utterly unacceptable, and most importantly i think when it comes to evangelising, for we ourselves to develop in our understanding of them as individuals, complete with personalities and questions – so we can be their friends. a caring, truthful friendship built on loyalty and integrity is the kind of relationship that will afford us the access and intimacy we need to really reach ppl and allow God to touch them, i think. and i think the whole point of transformation is that it’s a consistent process driven by ppl who care about change/growth and want to bring it about, and who allow themselves to be led by the Spirit in how to go about it, whether it comes to themselves or others. simply but most powerfully: Spirit, truth and love.