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Book Review - A Generous Orthodoxy
December 30, 2004
In this article I will be reviewing Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN, known hereafter simply as A Generous Orthodoxy. This is going to be quite a long book review - probably the longest I have written. To spare you having to read the full text if you are not so-inclined, I will ruin any sense of expectation by giving in advance my general impressions of this book. In short, it is awful. I consider it, in terms of content, one of the worst I have ever read and it stands as damning evidence of what passes for Christian reading in our day. Though it was easy to read, and even enjoyable at times, throughout the text Brian McLaren has consistently, deliberately and systematically dismantled historical Protestantism. From Sola Scriptura to hell to biblical inerrancy, nothing is sacred. At this point, those who are devotees of McLaren, The Emergent Church and post-modernism, will no doubt already have felt their blood boil and will be ready for a fight. I would encourage those people to keep reading. Those who are more traditional Christians will be grappling with an all-too-familiar feeling that this book represents yet another attack on the faith. And that is exactly what this book is. The remainder of this review will concern itself with showing how this book does away with biblical faith, replacing it with something far less godly and far more human. In short, something that is simply not Christianity.
It is difficult to critique the writing of people like McLaren because discerning what they actually believe is far more difficult than finding what they do not believe. Settling on those beliefs is akin to nailing Jello to the wall - it is a near impossible task as the Jello has no consistent form or shape, always changing, always conforming to what contains it. We are often left to read between the lines, interpreting what the author believes in light of what he rejects.
One has to become accustomed to McLaren’s rather odd style of writing. He is able author who writes in a conversational tone, continually pokes fun at himself, uses many long sentences and, by his own admission, uses parentheses far too often. The reader also needs to get used to near-constant use of the prefixes “post” and “pre.” Much of what McLaren writes about has no clear identity of its own, so can only be defined in terms of what preceded it. While we may not know exactly what post-modernism is or what form it will take, we do know that it follows, and hence is not to be equated with, modernism. Strangely, he even gets these prefixes wrong at times. For example, he claims at one point that “post” means “coming from” when the reality is that it simply means “after.” He constantly throws about terms such as post-liberal, post-conservative, post-protestant, pre-modern, post-medieval and so on.
To understand what this book claims to be, we need look no further than the back cover. It tells us that McLaren “calls for a radical, Christ-centered orthodoxy of faith and practice in a missional, generous spirit. He argues for a post-liberal, post-conservative, post-protestant convergence that will stimulate lively interest and global conversation among thoughtful Christians from all traditions. Instead of defining what is and what is not orthodox, McLaren walks through many traditions of the faith, bringing to center a way of life that draws us closer to Christ and each other.” Thus, while this book primarily intends to draw us closer to Christ, it is also ecumenical in its desire to break down barriers that seperate the various traditions within Christianity. To this end the cover claims it will draw the reader “toward a way of living that looks beyond the “us/them” paradigm to the blessed and ancient paradox of “we.”“
Upon reading that description, I immediately became curious as to what McLaren’s authority will be. As he examines the wide divergence of traditions with Christianity, how will he decide which to hold on to, which to cast aside and which to adopt as his own? Will he test all things in the light of Scripture and follow Paul’s directive to Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” or will he rely instead on his own wisdom and experience? It does not take long for the answer to become clear. We will turn now to a synopsis of the text.
The book begins with an introduction where the author establishes the audience this book is intended for. McLaren states that the book is especially directed at “Christians (or former Christians) - evangelical, liberal, Catholic, whatever - who are about to leave (or have just left) the whole business because of the kinds of issues I raise in this book. And equally I’m writing for the spiritual seekers who are attracted to Jesus, but they don’t feel there’s room for them in what is commonly called Christianity unless they swallow a lot of additional stuff.” (Page 39) While I do not fit in either category, I felt I should read the book as a means to attain a greater understanding of Brian McLaren as he is currently one of, if not the, primary leaders of the so-called Emergent Church. His popularity, especially among young evangelicals, is growing by the day. My interest, then, is in knowing who this person is that commands such a following and in discerning just where he is leading these people. In the introduction the author also states that he has gone out of his way to be “provocative, mischievious, and unclear, reflecting my belief that clarity is sometimes overrated, and that shock, obscurity, playfulness, and intrigue (carefully articulated) often stimulate more thought than clarity.” (Page 23) Within the text there is no further reference to where he is being serious and where he is being provocative, michievious or unclear. Hence I have no option but to approach everything he says as if he really means it. I would also like to point out that I do not claim any sense of absolute objectivity. I have an objective standard to which I will hold this book - the Holy Bible - but cannot let go of my Reformed, Protestant heritage and understanding of Scripture as I examine this book. I read the pages with a spirit of humility, always seeking and willing to be taught, but without letting go of the Word.
Chapter 0, entitled For Mature Audiences Only, is where we will find our first clues as to what McLaren considers to be a Generous Orthodoxy. It is a term coined by Hans Frei, a key figure in the emergence of what is now known as post-liberal theology. A typical definition of the term “orthodoxy” might be “a belief in the standards of accepted and true doctrines taught in the Bible.” In other words, the Bible defines within its pages what is true doctrine and those who believe in and adhere to these doctrines are orthodox. McLaren defines it differently. “Orthodoxy in this book may mean something more like “what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn.” Or it may mean “how we can search for a kind of truth you can never fully get into your head, so instead you seek to get your head (and heart) into it.”” (Page 28) He believes most Christians are far too serious and busy for such a definition of orthodox. I do not wish to belabor this point, but this is important. Look at what McLaren has not said. He has rejected the view that the Bible exists to give believers a consistent knowledge of God. He rejects the idea that we can have a consistently accurate orthodoxy from the Scripture. In his view we cannot know absolute truth from the Bible, hence we must search the vast gamut of Christian experience to find “a kind of truth.”
A second observation about this Generous Orthodoxy is that he has cleared the playing field, so to speak, eschewing all current systems of orthodoxy and beginning anew. But on what authority will he do this? The answer, as becomes clear later, is that he will do so on his own authority - with what feels right. His generous orthodoxy will not be a biblical orthodoxy for it does not begin and end with Scripture. He does not weigh each and every doctrine or experience by the Word of God. In his concluding chapter he tells us “To be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have truth captured, stuffed and mounted on the wall.” Parenthetically, I would like to point out that this is an irrational statement, for I know of no Christians who would make the claim that he has arrived at absolute truth in every area of doctrine. We will continue with McLaren who says that orthodoxy is a “loving community of people who are seeking truth on the road of mission and who have been launched on the quest by Jesus, who, with us, guides us still.” Again, notice that he refuses to acknowledge that perhaps we have captured much of objective truth through the Scripture. Orthodoxy is “a way of seeing and seeking, a way of living, a way of thinking and loving and learning that helps what we believe become more true over time, more resonant with the infinite glory that is God.” So to McLaren, orthodoxy is thinking or opinion, not doctrine. Furthermore, it becomes “more true” over time. How can something be more or less true? It is either true or false, unless of course, one is fully absorbed in the relevatism of postmodernism.
Chapter 0 concludes with acknowledgment that many parts of this book are far too simplistic, and affirmations of the dangers of absolutism and relativism, of inclusivism, exclusivism and universalism and his unfair bias in which he is overly harsh towards Conservative Protestants and overly sympathetic towards Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and liberals.
The remainder of the book is divided into two uneven sections. The first, with four chapters, explores why the author is a Christian. The second, with fifteen chapters, identifies the kind of Christian he is by investigating Christianity in the light of the emphases of fifteen different traditions.
Why He Is A Christian
The Seven Jesus I Have Known explores seven traditions McLaren has been part of or has investigated and shows the emphases each of them places on Jesus. The seven in question are: Conservative Protestant, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Liberal Protestant, Anabaptist and Liberation Theology. One has to question how well he understands each of these, especially the Roman Catholic Jesus. He says that he came to know this Jesus through the writings of Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Romano Guardini and Gabriel Marcel as well as various medieval mystics. He believes that the focus of Roman Catholics is how Jesus rises from the dead to save the church. This is inconsistent with the obvious, for only a brief survey of Catholic writing and art will show the emphases are on Jesus as a baby and Jesus’ suffering and death. The resurrection, while integral to Catholic theology, can hardly be considered the main emphasis. There can be similar concerns with his understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy which he typifies as valuing Jesus’ birth above all. Yet the Eastern Orthodox revere Easter above other liturgical celebrations. McLaren proposes that we, as believers, unite our emphases on Jesus and celebrate a richer, multidimensional vision of the Lord; that we “acknowledge that Christians of each tradition bring their distinctive and wonderful gifts to the table, so we can all enjoy the feast of generous orthodoy.” (Page 67)
Jesus and God B contrasts two prevailing views of God - God as the authoritarian sovereign and God as a mysterious saving force. He describes the universe one might expect of God A: “a universe of dominance, control, limitation, submission, uniformity, coercion.” From God B he would expect a universe of “interdependence, relationship, possibility, responsibility, becoming, novelty, mutuality, freedom.” (Page 76). The reality, as we find in Scripture, is that God contains elements of both of these views. God is sovereign and has full authority to do what He wishes. However, He also desires relationship and gives us responsibility and freedom. There is no warrant to tell believers they need to choose one of these views or the other. One wonders where McLaren draws these views from! In this chapter he pauses to apologize for his continued use of masculine pronouns to describe God. He proposes several solutions to this dilemma, including interchanging he and she or using the clumsy s/he. In the end he merely apologizes for the use of he, affirms that he considers God neither male nor female and tries to avoid using pronouns altogether. He goes on to say that the usage of the Father/Son imagery so prevalent in Scripture “contributes to the patriarchalism or chauvinism that has too often characterized Christianity.”
Would Jesus Be A Christian asks the difficult question of whether Jesus would identify with what we have constructed and named in His honor. In this chapter he acknowledges the influence of N.T. Wright in shaping his view of the apostle Paul, stating in a footnote that we have “misunderstood and misused Paul.” (Page 86) He believes that traditional views of Paul have pitted him against Jesus so that we have “retained Jesus as Savior but promoted the apostle Paul to Lord and Teacher.” He tells us that the result of today’s Christianity is “a religion that Jesus might consider about as useful as many non-Christians consider it today.” (Page 89) This is consistent with the New Perspective on Paul, a theological view espoused especially by N.T. Wright that is gaining prominence and teaches that the Reformers misunderstood Paul, interpreting his writing through their medieval mindset, rather than through Paul’s own context. This view necessitates radically redefining the doctrine of justification and is, at its core, ecumenism, making light of the differences that have seperated Protestants and Catholics. That is a subject unto itself and not one that can be covered in this review. Suffice it to say that it is clear from this book and McLaren’s other writings that he does hold to the New Perspective on Paul, a view that has been condemned by most Protestants as a serious, critical deviation from the Scriptural model.
Jesus: Savior of What provides as clear a definition of salvation as McLaren gives in this book. This is not to say it is, by any means, lucid. Drawing from the Catholic missionary Vincent Donovan, he believes we need to rethink what Christians have long called salvation. Quoting Donovan, he says we need to move beyond the theology of salvation and towards the theology of creation. He encourages the reader to suspend any knowledge of what it means to be saved and examine the issue with fresh, unbiased attention. Salvation is then redefined in a way that is consistent with the New Perspective on Paul. He tries to challenge those so fixated on salvation being an issue of saving people from hell that they forget salvation also necessitates action and responsibility in this life. He contends that contemporary Christians are largely fixated on salvation being “all about them.” While this may be true in some regard, today’s emphasis on worship being extended to all areas of life is certainly beginning to give people fresh eyes about what it means to live for God. In this chapter he also toys with the concept of hell, neither rejecting nor affirming any view. Reading between the lines it would seem that he does believe in some non-traditional concept of hell, but he merely says that “radical rethinking is needed.” (Page 100) He suggests that he will deal with the subject more thoroughly in an later book.
The next fifteen chapters are dedicated to part two, an examination of many of the different traditions within Christianity.
What Type of Christian
McLaren is Missional in the vein of Lesslie Newbigin, because he places in the forefront of Christianity the need to be active in improving the world in the name of Jesus. His defines the church’s mission as “To be and make disciples of Jesus Christ in authentic community for the good of the world.” (Page 107). He also further muddies his view on hell in this chapter so that if the reader was confused before, he will be only further confused now.
McLaren is evangelical (note the small “e”) because he cherishes an identity beyond a doctrinal array or practice. He has an attitude toward God and his neighbor that is passionate, based on a respect for Scripture, a personal walk with God, a belief that intimacy with God is possible and a desire to evangelize, though not necessarily in the way most people think of evangelism.
McLaren is Post/Protestant in that he no longer protests what the first Protestants fought against, but instead Pro-testifies, telling his story to others. In this and several of the subsequent chapters he writes about the Reformation, saying that it was essentially “Christianity going post-medieval or modern.” (Page 132) This does a great disservice to those men and women who protested Roman theology, even to their deaths, and rediscovered the faith of the Bible! They did much more than take Catholicism to a new era. He simplifies the Reformation, making it more about indulgences than authority and justification. In this way he can indicate that issues keeping Protestant from Catholic at the time of the Reformation are no longer valid, for even Catholics now reject indulgences and many other excesses of medieval Catholicism. McLaren proves here what a low view he has of Protestantism.
McLaren is Liberal/Conservative which seems to indicate emphases on both social action and evangelism, a balance the church has had great difficulty maintaining in recent years.
McLaren is Mystical/Poetic in that he speaks of a “non-prose world, called unreal by the rulers of this age, but real to people of faith-…the world entered by the mystic, the contemplative, the visionary, the prophet, the poet.” (Page 146) He criticizes modern Christians who build “conceptual cathedrals of proposition and argument…known popularly as systematic theologies.” (Page 151) While he continues to value prose and narrative, he places greater emphasis than most on mystery and metaphor. He believes systematic theology is inconsistent with a biblical understanding of the mystery of God.
McLaren is Biblical in that he has a high regard for the Bible - higher now, he says, than it ever has been. He values it differently now than in his youth, seeing it less now than before as a book of answers. Despite a chapter-length treatment of the subject, it is difficult to discern exactly what his view of Scripture is. He indicates that he believes the Bible contains Paul’s opinion (1 Corinthians 7:12), a common misunderstanding that perhaps betrays his lack of theological training, and that it also contains Paul’s own biases (with Titus 1:12-13 as an example). (Page 161) He seems to believe that the Bible’s primary purpose is to train people for their mission to the world, downplaying terms such as authority, inerrancy, infallibility, revelation, objective, absolute and literal. He indicates that the profitable use of Scripture is to leave the comforts of home and go to the world. His examples of people who have understood what it means to be biblical Christians are St. Francis, Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. Our modern assumptions of the Bible have often been wrong, so to move forward we need to reclaim the Bible as narrative rather than didactive in nature.
McLaren is Charismatic/Contemplative in that he believes in the miraculous, supernatural works of God, yet prefers quiet contemplation. He writes about his discovery of Brother Lawrence and says that the discipline of practicing God’s presence “became…the single most important spiritual discipline in my life.” (Page 176) As one would expect, this chapter is laden with quotes from and references to Catholic contemplatives.
McLaren is Fundamentalist/Calvinist because he affirms the semper reformada of the Reformation. He believes, as did the Reformers, that we need to be continually reforming our faith. Of course the Reformers would never have seperated this from the doctrine of Sola Scriptura which would have ensured the Bible was their guide to reform. In this chapter McLaren denies the Doctrines of Grace as summarized in the acronym TULIP and also states that the solas of the Reformation are restrictive, unnecessary reductionism. He believes truth is “often best understood in a conversation, a dialectic (or trialectic), or a dynamic tension” rather than in non-negotiable solas. In this chapter he shows a blatant disregard for the heart of the Reformation and gives no real reason to believe he has ever read or understood John Calvin or any of the Reformers. He also rewrites TULIP, a topic I have covered in detail in this article, so that they now focus on man instead of on God.
McLaren is an Anabaptist/Anglican in that he appreciates the pacificism and simplicity of the Anabaptists and the liturgy and willingness to compromise of the Anglicans. He mentions, cryptically, on page 204 that one becomes a Christian by making a personal committment where one identifies with Jesus, his mission and his followers.
McLaren is Methodist in that he identifies with the Wesley’s original emphasis on reaching the outcast of society.
McLaren is Catholic for many reasons which he identifies more clearly than in most chapters. He enjoys the sacramentalism, the liturgical nature of worship, the respect for tradition, the celebration of Mary and the fact that Catholics know how to party (as emphasized in Mardi Gras). In regards to Mary he expresses a realization that his Protestant faith has been impoverished “with its exlusively male focus.” (Page 228) He explains how much we have missed, as Protestants, by failing to see the beauty of the incarnation through Mary.
McLaren is Green because he emphasizes good stewardship of Creation. He adopts an Eastern Orthodox outlook of continual creation, rather than stagnant creation.
McLaren is incarnational in that he seeks to become all things to all men. He respects and values other faiths and seeks to enter into constructive dialogue with them. Should someone from another religion want to become a Christian, McLaren encourages that person to become a Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish follower of Jesus. People should remain within their religious contexts rather than joining a Christian context. His hope is that God will redeem all of the religions of the world.
McLaren is depressed-yet-hopeful. Depressed as he looks back to Christian history, but hopeful as he looks forward. He indicates that all believers need to repent of the atrocities of the past, committed against other religions. He mentions, as one example, the horrible acts of the conquistadors against the kingdoms of South America and indicates we all need to repent of these awful deeds. This shows, once again, his belief that all the traditions within Christianity are, to some extent, equally valid, for why else would I, as a Protestant, need to repent of deeds done under the banner of Rome by one who clearly was not a believer?
McLaren is Emergent. This chapter is perhaps the culmination of all that has been said since McLaren is primarily known as being a leader of the Emergent Church. He compares the emerging church to a butterfly that is halfway out of its cocoon. It looks ugly now, but as it swings back and forth between absolutism and relativism, it will eventually emerge in the middle as something beautiful. In this chapter he provides something of a definition of sin, a definition which would take too long to recount but is clearly at odds with that of the historical confessions.
McLaren is, finally, unfinished. Because he realizes he has not arrived at any firm conclusions, he knows that he must keep seeking, keep learning and keep growing. The book closes in mid-sentence to illustrate that it is, likewise, unfinished.
That is a brief but I hope accurate assessment of what one will find in the book. Not everything McLaren has to say is bad. For example, he brings out some valid criticisms of each of the traditions he examines. He has good things to say about the shortcomings of the church growth movement. Even his desire to semper reformada is admirable. But the positive aspects of the book are by far outweighed by the negatives. I have hestitated to speak of the author in this way, but before God I feel I have no choice. He teaches false, anti-biblical doctrine throughout this book. The faith of Brian McLaren is not the faith of the Bible and only bears the most vague resemblance to Christianity.
Here are several random observations:
There are many arguments I would like to make, but I know most of them would have little meaning because McLaren acknowledges no authority outside himself. I would like to appeal to Scripture to understand where we a generous orthodoxy is commanded, suggested or even hinted at. But if Scripture is not authoritative, we have no need to look there. McLaren does not examine each tradition in light of the Scripture and decide which are most biblical. He makes no attempt to examine traditions and beliefs in light of Scripture and discern what God says about them. Instead, he interprets and develops theology in light of what is important to him. For example, because he loves the environment he cannot believe it can be evil and fallen, and thus is forced to do away with a biblical view of original sin. Quotes from the Bible are by far outweighed by quotes from mere human authors, a majority of them Roman Catholic. Chesterton appears to be his primary influence and quotes by him must outweigh biblical quotes by at least a margin of three to one. A man who rejects God’s authority should not be a leader within the Christian community.
He builds and then refutes straw-man arguments. He continually paints things in the worst possible light, often in a completely false light, and then seeks to be profound in refuting those arguments. This was most notable to me in his discussion of Calvinism. He presented beliefs no true Calvinist adheres to and then proceeded to show that the false view was wrong. Ironically, on page 135 he criticizes both liberals and conservatives for continually comparing “their own best to their counterpart’s worst” yet that very spirit pervades this book.
He proves nothing. Time and time again he mentions facts, especially from history, with no attempt whatsoever to prove them true. He gives no context, no proof, no particulars and no citations. I suspect many of his readers have as little knowledge as he does of history, especially Reformational history, and will thus believe what he says, regardless of its truthfulness.
He is so nice. Those of us who are concerned far more with truth, and by that I refer to God’s truth as outlined in Scripture, are rarely as nice as McLaren. We are forced to call sin sin. We are forced to reject much of what other people value, treasure and believe. We unapologetically reject what does not adhere to Scriptural models. McLaren and other Emergent leaders are always so nice, accepting everything and politely, though often sarcastically, rejecting Truth. What chance to Protestant apologists have against such niceness? Yet it does not matter, for foolishness in the eyes of man is wisdom in the eyes of God. God be true though every man be a liar!
In the end I have to reject this book as being something entirely different than Christian. It portrays some sort of faith modelled loosely on aspects of Christianity, but there is far more error than truth. McLaren has proven himself to be just one more in a long line of “Christian” leaders leading people away from Scripture and away from the absolute Truth it contains. Of course McLaren can always claim that we, the old-fashioned, non-Emergent Protestants, just don’t get it; that somehow we are so absorbed in our modernism that we cannot make the transition to the new realities of our society. But with others, I am committed to the Bible and to remaining under God’s authority.
Having read McLaren’s statement of faith, I can see little evidence that he understands or accepts even the basic tenets of the faith. I do not doubt McLaren’s niceness, kindness or even his desire to see the church Reformed for the better. But his generous orthodoxy is far removed from true Christianity. Christians need to reject this book and reject McLaren as a leader and teacher as long as he continues to espouse such views. I would call upon him to repent of his arrogance in rejecting God’s authority and to return in submission to our Lord.
A Generous Orthodoxy