A Simple Review of “A Generous Orthodoxy”

This is a repost of something I had on my older blog.

When I first saw the cover of Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy long long ago, I thought at first – given the title – it was about Eastern Orthodoxy. This was quickly dashed when I saw the front cover declare that McLaren is a “missional, Evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, Charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglical, Methodist, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, Emergent,” and “unfinished” Christian. What he essentially means by this is that he believes merits are shared across denominational lines in a kind of ecumenical spirit.

The term “orthodox” was developed in relation to a scriptural faith and tradition. Is McLaren seeking this methodology? Unsurprisingly, no. McLaren’s method of figuring out what is “orthodox” seems to be picking what sounds good. Read, for example, his reason for his faith:

This is why, for starters, I am a Christian: the image of God conveyed by Jesus as the Son of God, and the image of the universe that resonates with this image of God best fit my deepest experience, best resonate with my deepest intuition, best inspire by deepest hope, and best challenge me to live with what my friend, the late Mike Yaconelli, called “dangerous wonder,” which is a starting point for a generous orthodoxy. [pg 85]

Yet should we resonate with Jesus because He fits our “intution,” “experience” and “hope”? Hope, perhaps, but intuition and experience? This sounds like dangerous theology similar to the Charismatic belief that one should ignore lexicons, Church history, and even scripture so long as you feel like you’re doing the right thing. It puts the standards of orthodoxy on the individual person rather than scripture. Arius, Nestorius, and Origen would all applaud this idea, but the Christian theologians throughout the ages would be shocked at the notion that Jesus is defined by man, rather than the other way around.

Of course, the problem with the Emergent movement is that it seeks to make the message of God “nice” – not “nice” in a good way, but in a way that demotes it to appease society’s contemporary standards of morals. One example of this is in trying to present Jesus with the popular idea that He is nothing but this sweet, lovable guy who never contradicts or corrects:

Against this backdrop, theistic determinism is just another determinism, and in that case, talking about God as the all-powerful, all-controlling Lord/King is just more bad news, reducing us to plastic chessmen on a board of colored squares, puppets on strings in a play we don’t write, characters in a video game that we aren’t even playing, cogs in a contraption whose levers and buttons God and God alone pulls and pushes…

Good news under these circumstances would be a leader who liberated us from all determinism, who deconstructed oppressive authority and the self-interest of leaders and nations, who destabilized the status quo and made way for a better day; who delivered us not only from corrupt power, but also from the whole approach to power that is so corruptible… [pg 90]

Jesus apparently does this, as McLaren explains that the term “Jesus is Lord” is not the same as “Caesar is Lord.” He redefines the very definition of a master-servant relationship.

“I no longer call you servants,” Jesus says, “but friends.” He sets a shocking example of revolutionary mastership by stripping down to his undergarment and washing the feet of his disciples, something only a slave would do (never a master!), and thus highlights that this is his absurd, unheard-of way of showing mastery – by serving. He commands his disciples to practice this inverted form of leadership by humble service (“not as the gentiles,” he says), so the last are first, and the first, last. No one can call Jesus “Lord” without letting Jesus define the word in this radical, revolutionary new way. Otherwise they’re letting lords other than the Lord determine what the word means. [pg 92]

The problem is that McLaren contradicts himself when he admits, on the same page, that Jesus is still “the leader who gives commands,” and whose commands “should be followed wholeheartedly.” Such a person would, by McLaren’s original definition of determinism, be a tyrannical Lord. In fact, the passage McLaren quotes from (John 15:15) is preceded by Jesus saying, “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.” This doesn’t sound like someone who wanted to change a master-servant relationship.

Yet why did Jesus call the disciples His friends? McLaren leaves that out from the original passage. He said that He no longer called them servants “for a servant does not know what his master is doing,” but now He calls them friends because “all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” Contrary to what McLaren might have you assume, Jesus didn’t choose the disciples as friends because they were good drinking buddies or enjoyed the same sports teams.

Also left out is what Jesus said to the disciples when He washed their feet.

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” [John 13:12-17]

Christ was performing humility to teach the disciple’s humility. When Christ humbled Himself, He did not cease becoming God, nor, as Christ affirms here, did He cease becoming the Authority over man.

Some might accuse me of distorting McLaren’s words by pointing out that Jesus did teach His disciples humility, and McLaren mentions this. I would agree – however, remember that McLaren identifies this person-to-person humility and then declares “no one can call Jesus ‘Lord’ without letting Jesus define the word in this radical, revolutionary new way.” Yet the reason we call Jesus “Lord” and why we call an earthly leader “lord” are two vastly separate reasons. It almost comes across as suggesting that God put Himself on equal with mankind. Though Christ took on a full humanity, He maintained a full Deity, and at all times He was still God. He humbled Himself (past-tense) as a man, yes, but then He rose again in a spiritually glorified body – He is our Lord.
One might say that the statement by McLaren that saying “Jesus is Lord” was different than saying “Caesar is Lord” is true, but not for the same reason McLaren says. He attempts to say that “Jesus is Lord” signified something smaller than Caesar – in fact, it represented something far greater! The ancient Romans recognized this surely. They knew that when Christians spoke of their Lord, they spoke of someone with greater power than Caesar could ever dream of. For the Romans, in particular the Caesars who considered themselves a deity on par with Pharaoh, the implications of the statement “Jesus is Lord” were so clear that they attempted genocide of the Christian faith.

It should be noted that I have no doubt that God is a loving God. The problem is that McLaren first admits God cannot be defined, then seeks to define Him in ways that really do not do Him justice. This is the greatest fault in the Emergent movement: the modernization of God. Instead of addressing common misconceptions regarding differences between the God of the Old and New Testaments, McLaren seems to embrace them – nay, give them validity. He then attempts to play with them, perhaps in an attempt to save God face, but in doing so only turns the argument against himself.

Most telling is McLaren’s suggestion of a God A and God B: God A (obviously the God of the Old Testament) is aggressive, cruel and forceful, whereas God B (Jesus and the New Testament God) is friendly, loving, and kind. He writes that when people met Jesus, their understanding of God was “revolutionized.”

Think of the kind of universe you would expect if God A created it: a universe of dominance, control, limitation, submission, uniformity, coercion. Think of the kind of universe you would expect if God B created it: a universe of interdependence, relationship, possibility, responsibility, becoming, novelty, mutuality, freedom. I’m not sure which comes first – the kind of universe you see or the kind of God you believe in, but as a Christian who believes in Jesus as the Son of God, I find myself in universe B, getting to know God B. [pg 85]

This teaching by McLaren is dangerously close to Marcionism, an early heresy founded by a Gnostic who believed Jesus to belong to a new God while the Hebrew God of the Old Testament was an entirely different Being – in fact, Jesus had been sent to free humanity from the first God. Fans of McLaren might interject and say, “No no, he’s talking about how the understanding of God changed for those who met Jesus! It was still the same God!” Nevertheless, the understanding of God from the old covenant to the new changed only in the sense that the Trinity was revealed – and yet, we can see examples of the Trinity within the Old Testament, or at least predictions of it (for example, God appears as three men to Abraham, yet Abraham addresses the group as one). It did not change the “personality” of God as perceived by the Jews or early Christian Gentiles. No where did the apostles ever say anything similar to, “Wow, God, You’re a lot nicer than we thought You were!” For certain, they would be familiar with the fact that Moses spoke to God as one does a friend (Exo 33:11) and that Abraham is called many times a friend of God (2 Chro 20:7; Isa 41:8). Christ was not the first incident of a “friendly deity,” nor did the Old Testament examples I just give redefine the relationship between God and man.

Of course, it is part of the plan to use Christ’s calling of the apostles “friends” to present the Emergent Church’s belief of a socially aware and politically correct God. Oftentimes, men such as McLaren are found bending over backwards to try to appeal to modern senses regarding ancient scripture. The most shocking part of the book is one such example: McLaren discusses God’s gender in a section rife with political correctness.

This is as good a place as any to apologize for my use of masculine pronouns for God in the previous sentence. You’ll notice that wherever I can, I avoid the use of masculine pronouns for God because they can give the false impression to many people today that the Christian God is a male deity. God is not a male. Instead God is personal (we might say super-personal) in a way that human maleness and femaleness together image better than either can alone. Maleness and femaleness are biological categories, and God is Life beyond biological categories…

There are many ways of trying to overcome this dilemma. Some of these solutions are using she for a while, in a kind of linguistic affirmative action (which disturbs some, satisfies others), or using he with the understanding that it means personal but non-exclusively-male when referring to her (which disturbs others and satifise some and mirrors rather than solves the current problem, thus creating a second wrong, which, for many people, including myself, doesn’t add up to a right solution). Others suggest using s/he (which creates the additional problems of requiring him/her, his/hers, etc., and which suggests “both/either male and female” but not necessarily “comprising and beyond male and female”). Another option is capitalizing He (which for some succesfully moves the male masculine pronoun beyond human masculinity to divine Personality, but for others creates a kind of Super-Masculinity, which is even worse). These days I simply try to avoid pronouns altogether, but use them when I must for stylistic reasons, and hereby beg the reader’s pardon, reaffirming my belief (shared by C.S. Lewis, et al.) that God is not a male or a female, whatever pronouns we use. [pg 82-83]

How much can one talk about nothing?

In all the blood, sweat and tears poured by the Church Fathers, I don’t think they ever wasted so much time regarding the pronoun used for God. One could have simply ended this discussion with, “God has no gender,” or “The translation of He from the original Hebrew text is often non-gender in origin.” One could even just say, “I don’t believe God has a gender.” Yet if a person was seriously offended by any of this, then I believe they have much more to worry about than their opinion of God’s gender.

McLaren’s own overemphasis of it (he continues well into page 84 on the subject) makes me worry about his theological priorities. He shouldn’t say he has to literally “apologize” for the use of masculine pronouns, in fact I don’t think any great theologian in the past ever felt that compelled to do so. One never, in all of John Chrysostom’s work, ever saw him pause from his exegesis to apologize to any readers offended by his use of “He” for God, let alone did he ever suggest, “Tell you what, let’s call God ‘She’ for a while, just to be fair.” To suggest using “she” simply to appease some people when Christ Himself referred to His Father as “He,” let alone “Father,” sounds as if you are ashamed of God’s word. This is equally true of McLaren’s statement that the biblical use of “Father” and “Son” also “contributes to the patriarchism and chauvinism that has too often characterized Christianity” (pg 83), when that “biblical use” is often by Christ. Was Christ a chauvinist? Should we be shamed of what Jesus said?

I recognize that some McLaren supporters might interject here with, “He isn’t trying to criticize their use in the bible, but redefine them.” The problem is that in identifying calling God “He” or “Father” presents a problem, McLaren thereby admits a problem exists when it doesn’t. Furthermore, suggesting things such as calling God “she” for a while or “h/she” alternatively is trying to find a solution to a problem that McLaren has to admit God created – or, at the very least, continued in Christ.

As with most Emergent Church figures McLaren can be hard to criticize, because the language used is so vague that one has to dig deep to really understand what the person is implying. He attempts to come across as such a sweet-hearted, well intentioned man who just wants everyone to stop arguing and see the good in the world. As a result we forget where the humility of the Lord ends and the heresy of the world begins. A person may be fooled because nothing seems wrong, but the discerning reader may recognize that, as the writer ups the ante, the border between orthodoxy and heresy becomes faded until finally all sound doctrine is lost.

Many in the Emergent Church, like McLaren, attempt to paint Jesus as a social mover and revolutionary. Of course, if Christ merely came to make our world a better place here and now, then He failed, because when He ascended to heaven He left the world with still millions of poor, sick and oppressed individuals. Christ’s goal, however, was not to better our lives in the here and now but to prepare us for the Kingdom of Heaven. What use would the Kingdom of Heaven be if our world was already heaven?

As Christ said, “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory” (Luke 9:26).

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