Skip to content ↓

Brian McLaren’s TULIP

Articles Collection cover image

Brian McLaren seems to enjoy controversy. Actually, it would seem from his books that he even likes controversy merely for the sake of controversy. Like the boys in days of old who used to sneak out of church, go into the adjoining outhouse and stir up the “pot” just to create a stink, so it seems McLaren likes to make trouble. He does this in a nice way, accompanied to all sorts of disclaimers and warnings, but at the end of the day, that seems to be his clear intent. He seems to view his job as being the one to ask questions, sometimes even outrageous ones, but never to answer them – a definitively postmodern attitude.

His theology (or lack thereof) is difficult to nail down, mostly because, as I indicated, he prefers asking questions to answering them, but seems to be a fusion of the New Perspective on Paul, Mysticism, Inclusivism, Open Theism and humanism. While he operates under the guise of a teacher of the Bible, in reality it seems he teaches mostly human wisdom with just the occasional reference to Jesus or the Bible. He is a student of every branch of Christianity and, in reality, of all religion and human experience, trying to draw and absorb what he likes while rejecting what he does not.

In his latest book, A Generous Orthodoxy McLaren tells his audience why he is 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.” He goes through each of these topics, showing what he has learned from each, which aspects of each he has integrated with his faith and why he considers himself an adherent to all of them. In other words, he makes up his faith as he goes along, much like someone might choose a meal from a buffet line. Steve Camp writes the following about the book: “There are no rules, no models, no denominational walls; no truth constraints; no theological grids; no ecclesiastical structures; no polity; no historic faith; no seemingly observance of hermenuetics for properly interpreting Scripture; no common meta-narratives; and not even any agreed definitions to common biblical terms and truth. It’s just him learning, growing, evolving, experiencing, left unfinished kind of Christianity.” Above all, there is no authority outside of himself, for authority is a bad word in the post-modern matrix.

As one who is devoted to the Reformed faith, a term I consider to be synonymous with biblical faith, I was especially interested in seeing how he identifies with Calvinism. I had to read 179 pages to even get to that point but finally came to the chapter entitled “Why I Am A Fundamentalist/Calvinist.”

It does not take a discerning reader long to find that McLaren does not understand Calvinism. He speaks of the broad view of reality espoused by Calvin as being Determinism, “which says that ultimately, our freedom is an illusion, and that we’re just puppets of one sort or another.” He provides the metaphor of God being a video game creator and player and humans as mere characters who are there for God’s entertainment. Being good means that we do not resent God for jerking us around like the puppets we are. McLaren says he has little time for determinism because “if it’s true…I can’t help but not believe it, because after all, I have no choice.” McLaren clearly knows very little about even the basics of the Reformed view of God’s Sovereignty, human responsibility and free will. But that will not stop him from passing judgment on what his false view of Calvinism is, which will further convince others that this mistaken view is correct. He says also that “I do not believe that this universe is a movie that’s already in the can, having been produced and shot already in God’s mind, leaving us with the illusion that it’s all for real and actually happening. I find it hard to imagine worshiping or loving a deterministic, machine-operator God.”

McLaren believes that in terms of intellectual rigor, Calvinism is the highest expression of modernism. Since he now rejects modernism and tells us that we are progressing into a post-modern age, this is not a compliment. Rather, it is a warning that a system based so fully on modernism may well be left behind as our society passes into post-modernism. Reformed believers need to find a “nonmechanistic identity” which will draw more from the wisdom of Anabaptists, Pentecostals and Roman Catholics.

McLaren supposes that there are two ways Reformed Christians can honor Calvin and the other Reformers in the road ahead. I suspect most Reformed believers are far less interested in honoring Calvin and the Reformers than God, but for sake of charity I will allow McLaren’s point to stand. He suggests we could do so in one of two ways:

  1. To faithfully defend and promote their post-medieval formulations through all time. Reformed theologian Dr. John Franke calls this “the conservative distortion of so closely equating Reformed theology with the events, creeds, and confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as to virtually eliminate, in practice if not in theory, the reforming principle of the tradition, thus betraying a central committment of its formal character.”” This sounds very nice, but Reformed theology is primarily equated with the Scripture and with the God’s own teaching about redemption. Creeds and confessions are subordinate standards, in that they, as with us, are in submission to the authority of Scripture. To equate Calvinism with events, creeds and confessions is to do it injustice, for it is primarily concerned with the Scripture. While it is, indeed, always Reforming, the centrality must continue to be on the Word of God. McLaren, unfortunately, does not define what he believes are the “post-medieval” formulations, though it seems from his subsequent discussion that this must include the five points of Calvinism as encapsulated in the acronym TULIP. In other words, the very heart of Calvinism is post-medieval and growing more invalid by the day.
  2. “To follow their example in seeking to construct formulations of faith that are as fitting to our postmodern times as theirs were to their post-medieval times. This is the path a new generation of Reformed/Reforming Christians will take.” Actually, I disagree with this. Believers who are truly Reformed and who truly understand what the Bible teaches about redemption, will not change their formulations of faith, for these are set in stone in the Word. They may adapt to the times by changing presentation or making small changes to the periphery, but they will not change the formulations. Indeed, they cannot.

McLaren proposes that Calvinists reinvent the acronym TULIP in light of a less deterministic and mechanistic worldview. In doing so he shows that he has no respect for or understanding of the Reformed faith, and hence, for a biblical understanding of redemption. Here is what he proposes:

Triune Love – He believes we should not allow the metaphor of God as judge to be predominant in our faith. We should not view God’s relation to creation primarily in terms of legal prosecution (as judge) and absolute control (as sovereign). Instead, we should allow the metaphor of the community of the Trinity to dominate our thought, so the attribute of love can emerge. Calvinists, then, should not be so harsh and judgmental, supposing they really know who God is and how He interacts with this world.

Of course man’s Total Depravity, the original “T” in TULIP, is a foundational doctrine that McLaren all but rejects later in his book. Man’s depravity sets the stage for all of our theology and is the basis for the biblical teaching on redemption. We must begin with our own inability, lest we begin to believe that we are somehow responsible for our faith. It is crucial that we know that God as judge is not merely metaphor, but is truth grounded in Scripture. God is the judge of the living and the dead and will judge each and every person. Furthermore, He does have complete, unlimited control over His creation. What McLaren refers to as “naked will” is no less than what God claims for Himself through Scripture. Where Calvinism is drawn from and defended by Scripture, McLaren offers no Scriptural support for his claims.

Unselfish Election – For his second point, McLaren turns to missiologist Lesslie Newbigin and his claim that God does not elect anyone to exclusive privilege, but to missional responsibility. Election is a “gift that is given to some for the benefit of others” and to be chosen means to be “blessed to be a blessing, to be healed to heal, to be chosen to serve, to be enriched to enrich, to be taught to teach.” This understanding, he believes, would be revolutionary and liberating for the Reformed believer.

In his teaching on election, McLaren creates a straw man. The doctrine, when believed in light of the Scripture, does not fill the Christian with pride as he looks down on the reprobate. He does not parade around like a peacock, laughing at those who have not been given such privileged status, or as McLaren states it, do not possess something that, “like a popular credit card, offers elite privileges to possessors.” The doctrine of Unconditional Election breeds humility, for when we first understand our depravity, we must realize that God chose us not on the basis of anything we could do, would do, or could offer Him, but merely out of His unsurpassed grace. An understanding of this doctrine motivates us to share the Gospel with others that they might also receive His grace. How could we lose sight of something so beautiful? Why would we want to forsake this?

Limitless Reconciliation – Instead of speculating on the extent of Christ’s atonement, Reformed believers should concentrate on “relational reconciliation.” This is a reconciliation that extends love to our neighbours, forgives others and always focuses on being peace ambassadors of Christ to all.

McLaren sweeps under the carpet as mere and unimportant speculation a doctrine that has far-reaching implications. Furthermore, he perverts the Biblical meaning of “reconciliation.” The Bible does not use this word arbitrarily, but speaks of the reconciliation of man to God and how this can be accomplished. It speaks of redemption! Salvation! Our ministry of reconciliation is not relational healing of myself to my neighbor (right and good as that may be), but the far more important relational healing of a sinful man to a holy God.

Inspiring Grace – Instead of picturing God’s grace as a dominating, almost mechanistic force that we are unable to resist, the Reformed faith should view God’s grace as a passionate, powerful and personal desire to shower His beloved with healing and joy and every good thing. Having received this grace, Reformed believers would be inspired by grace to extend that grace to others in good works.

God’s grace is grace because it cannot be resisted. Were it resistable, it would be a mere favor or gift. Were God’s grace resistable, we would all resist it, for in our natural, fallen condition we despise God and everything He might offer us. In McLaren’s view God does not provide us grace to save us, but presumably, following our decision to follow Him, gives us grace in the form of healing, joy and every good thing.

Passionate, Persistent Saints – Acknowledging the previous four points, Reformed believers would be indefatigable in attempts to live and share the gospel, resilient after failure, persevering in adversity, persistent over centuries and across generations. Rather than grim endurance, they would have unquenchable hope, confident that God will never fail to fulfill His promises and would be passionate to join Him in expressing saving love for our world.

McLaren once more shows his misunderstanding of Reformed believers when he says they have a “grim endurance.” Reformed believers have far more than that! They live with an obedience filled with grace, love and compassion that is born of the Spirit. Perseverance of the Saints refers to the belief that God will never let go of those He has chosen. This gives us great joy and hope, not mere endurance.


Brian McLaren has rewritten the doctrines of grace, the doctrines that summarize what the Scripture teaches about redemption; about how sinful men can be reconciled to a holy God. He has taken these doctrines, which in part and in totality focus exclusively on the works of God in, to and through us, and has rewritten them in terms of what we can offer God and each other. He has given them a man-focus rather than a God-focus. Further, and this is consistent with a theology of redemption and justification drawn more from N.T. Wright and the New Perspective on Paul than from the Bible, he removes the emphasis from reconciliation, substitution and judgment to mere human acts.

I am preparing an extensive review of A Generous Orthodoxy and will post it in later this week.

  • A La Carte Collection cover image

    A La Carte (June 18)

    A La Carte: The pursuit of (which) happiness? / Don’t hastily choose elders / The evangelistic nature of awe / What you read builds who you are / Till he was strong / A father’s threads of living faith / Logos deals / and more.

  • Lets Hear It For the Second Parents

    Let’s Hear It For the Second Parents

    While today we tend to associate step-parents with divorce, in previous centuries they were almost exclusively associated with death and with either widow- or widowerhood. In an era in which lifespans were shorter and, therefore, a greater number of parents died while their children were still young, there was a distinct and honored role for…

  • A La Carte Collection cover image

    A La Carte (June 17)

    A La Carte: Honor good fathers and bad fathers alike? / Don’t give up, dad / How I respond to pride month / 5 myths about the pro-life movement / A seminar on biblical counseling / How do I know if I’m one of the elect? / Kindle deals / and more.

  • The Glorious End without the Difficult Means

    The Glorious End without the Difficult Means

    Just as Olympic athletes cannot realistically expect to win a gold medal unless they strictly discipline themselves toward victory, Christians cannot hope to prevail in the Christian life unless they take a serious, disciplined approach to it. Yet lurking in the background is always the temptation to hope that we can have the result of…

  • A La Carte Collection cover image

    Weekend A La Carte (June 15)

    A La Carte: Learn to rest in God’s justice / 3 reasons why your small group is not a church / How can I be a godly father? / Gender in the void / Are images of Christ OK? / The getting of wisdom / and more.

  • Making Good Return

    Making Good Return

    I don’t think I am overstating the matter when I say that this has the potential to be one of the most important books you will read. It’s a book that may shape years of your life and transform the way you carry out one of the key roles God assigns to you…