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The Gospel: Conventional vs. Emerging

Brian McLaren shares two gospels, one new and one old.

Those of us who have been keeping a wary eye on the Emerging Church know that to understand the movement we need to understand Brian McLaren. Though it is not quite fair to label him the movement’s leader, he certainly functions as its elder statesman and his writing seems to serve as a barometer for the movement. But anyone who has read his books will know just how difficult it is to pin down what he really believes. So often he is deliberately vague and mischievous and opaque, making suggestions but stopping short of actually saying, “This is what I believe.”

It was with some interest, then, that I read his understanding of “two views of Jesus’ good news” in a pre-release copy of his upcoming book Everything Must Change. In a chapter entitled “How Much More Ironic,” he lays out the gospel as he understands it, set against the gospel as traditionally understood by Protestants. In an endnote he defines this just a little bit further to say it represents a Calvinistic, evangelical Protestant, understanding of the good news.

So here, under four headings, is McLaren’s portrayal of what he calls the “conventional view” of Jesus’ good news:

The Human Situation: What is the Story We Find Ourselves In? God created the world as perfect, but because our primal ancestors, Adam and Eve, did not maintain the absolute perfection demanded by God, god has irrevocably determined that the entire universe and all it contains will be destroyed, and the souls of all human beings—expect for those specifically exempted—will be forever punished for their imperfection in hell.

Basic Questions: What Questions Did Jesus Come to Answer? Since everyone is doomed to hell, Jesus seeks to answer one or both of these questions: “How can individuals be saved from eternal punishment in hell and instead go to heaven after they die?” “How can God help individuals be happy and successful until they die?”

Jesus’ Message: How did Jesus Respond to the Crisis? Jesus says in essence, “If you want to be among those specifically qualified to escape being forever punished for your sins in hell, you must repent of your individual sins and believe that my Father punished me on the cross so he won’t have to punish you in hell. Only if you believe this will you go to heaven when the earth is destroyed and everyone else is banished to hell.” This is the good news.

Purpose of Jesus: Why is Jesus Important? Jesus came to solve the problem of “original sin,” meaning that he helps qualified individuals not to be sent to hell for their sin or imperfection. In a sense, Jesus saves these people from God, or more specifically, from the righteous wrath of God which sinful human beings deserve because they have not perfectly fulfilled God’s just expectations, expressed in God’s moral laws. This escape from punishment is not something they earn or achieve, but rather a free gift they receive as an expression of God’s grace and love. Those who receive it enjoy a personal relationship with God and seek to serve and obey God, which produces a happier life on earth and more rewards in heaven.

And here, now, is the “emerging view” of the good news under those same four headings:

The Human Situation: What is the Story We Find Ourselves In? God created the world as good, but human beings—as individuals and as groups—have rebelled against God and filled the world with evil and injustice. God wants to save humanity and heal it from its sickness, but humanity is hopelessly lost and confused, like sheep without a shepherd, wandering farther and farther into lostness and danger. Left to themselves, human beings will spiral downward into sickness and evil.

Basic Questions: What Questions Did Jesus Come to Answer? Since the human race is in such desperate trouble, Jesus seeks to answer this question: “What must be done about the mess we’re in?” The mess refers both to the general human condition and its specific outworking among his contemporaries living under domination by the Roman Empire and confused and conflicted as to what they should do to be liberated.

Jesus’ Message: How did Jesus Respond to the Crisis? Jesus says, in essence, “I have been sent by God with this good news—that God loves humanity, even in its lostness and sin. God graciously invites everyone and anyone to turn from his or her current path and follow a new way. Trust me and become my disciple, and you will be transformed, and you will participate in the transformation of the world, which is possible, beginning right now.” This is the good news.

Purpose of Jesus: Why is Jesus Important? Jesus came to become the savior of the world, meaning he came to save the earth and all it contains from its ongoing destruction because of human evil. Through his life and teaching, through his suffering, death, and resurrection, he inserted into human history a seed of grace, truth, and hope that can never be defeated. This seed will, against all opposition and odds, prevail over the evil and injustice of humanity and lead to the world’s ongoing transformation into the world God dreams of. All who find in Jesus God’s truth and hope discover the privilege of participating in his ongoing work of personal and global transformation and liberation from evil and injustice. As part of his transforming community, they experience liberation from the fear of death and condemnation. This is not something they earn or achieve, but rather a free gift they receive as an expression of God’s grace and love.

Following his summary of the two views of the good news, McLaren says his readers will recognize that the conventional view is commonly described as “orthodoxy” while any departure from it is heresy. While he affirms that the conventional view has a lot going for it, he says “more and more of us agree that for all its value, it does not adequately situate Jesus in his original context, but rather frames him in the context of religious debates within Western Christianity, especially debates in the sixteenth century.”

Before turning to a discussion of six unintended negative consequences of the conventional view, he makes this statement about conventional theology. “The basic shape of the story is similar despite [denominational or traditional] differences in details: earth is doomed, and souls are eternally damned unless they are specifically and individually saved, and the purpose of Jesus was to provide a way for at least a few individuals to escape the eternal conscious torment of everlasting damnation. Supporters of the conventional view can justify it with many questions from the Bible, and in so doing they bring much of value to light. But many other passages of the Bible are marginalized in the conventional view, and it has proven to entail many unintended negative consequences.”

This book is an attempt to answer two overarching questions: What are the biggest problems in the world? and What does Jesus say about these global problems? Those who know McLaren from his previous books will not be surprised to learn that “Jesus in the conventional view has little or nothing to say regarding the world’s global crises.” Clearly, then, an alternative is needed—an alternative that will allow Jesus to speak to the crises in the world.

But if Jesus did not come to proclaim that He had come to reconcile sinful men to a sinless God through his substitutionary atonement, what then was the central message of Jesus? Well, I haven’t quite finished the book yet, but this seems to be the best summary so far: “When Jesus proclaimed his central message of the kingdom of God, he was proclaiming not an esoteric religious concept but an alternative empire: ‘Don’t let your lives be framed by the narratives and counternarratives of the Roman empire,’ he was saying, ‘but situate yourselves in another story … the good news that God is king and we can live in relation to God and God’s love rather than Caesar and Caesar’s power.’” Another summary of Jesus’ message reads like this: “The time has come! Rethink everything! A radically new kind of empire is available—the empire of God has arrived! Believe this good news, and defect from all human imperial narratives, counternarratives, dual narratives, and withdrawal narratives. Open your minds and hearts like children to see things freshly in this new way, follow me and my words, and enter this new way of living.” Jesus took that message to the cross, an instrument of torture and cruelty that He used “to expose the cruelty and injustice of those in power and instill hope and confidence in the oppressed.”

So, according to McLaren, Protestant theology has had it wrong all along. We’ve missed the message of Jesus by reading sixteenth century presuppositions into the Bible. We’ve read the Bible with faulty lenses and have arrived at a flawed and false view of Jesus.

It seems clear to me that Everything Must Change is another step down the steep path that leads farther and farther away from biblical orthodoxy. McLaren seems to be fully aware of the path he is taking and of the crowd he is taking with him. I fear for them all. It seems increasingly clear to me that the new kind of Christian is starting to resemble no kind of Christian at all…