A New Kind of The Same Old Heresy

I wish I had been wrong.  I wish I had overstated the case.  I wish this were a retraction post.

After calling Brian McLaren a “wolf-shepherd” in a previous post, I felt bad that I had dismissed him after just reading one excerpt of his new book.  After all, I was just going off of what other people said.  So I bought the book (on the fantastic Kindle app for the iPhone), and read it this past week.

It’s one of the saddest books I have ever read.  Because, like Rob Bell, McLaren is a guy who it is difficult to dislike.  He’s just so nice.  He seems to be very self-critical (in a healthy way) and looking to ensure that his motives are pure.

But to be honest, either he has never actually listened to our side of the argument (“our side” being those who hold to verbal plenary inerrancy) or he’s not interested in what we have to say, or both.

Here’s the thing: he addresses something in this book that desperately needs addressing in the conservative evangelical church.  We have earned the label of bigoted religious snobs.  We have confused capitalism with the kingdom of God.  We have abused the Scriptures, and then used those abused Scriptures to abuse and subjugate others.  We have targeted sins like homosexuality and witchcraft, while ignoring sins like racism and gluttony and greed.  All of these things are true.

And that’s about where my agreement with McLaren ends.

But like nailing jello to a wall, it is really tough to have a level-headed conversation with the guy, because in the book he’s already set the stage for how I am most likely to “attack” his position.  He’s in essence set the terms of engagement, and set them in his favor.  But here’s my three nails into the jello:

  • He has a “trajectory theology” that is impossible to support biblically (though he tries).
  • He is guilty of the worst kind of chronological snobbery.
  • Throughout the book he attacks a straw man, with no indication that he believes we on the other side of the argument have even considered the questions he raises.

I’ll address each of these issues in separate posts, because this one is already getting longer than I’d like.

The final thing I’d like to highlight about McLaren and his “new kind of Christianity” is that it is not new in the least.  Since the earliest days of Christianity there have been folks who said that the key to understanding the Bible was to see it in this “new” light of knowledge.  They too would take scriptures and wrest them from clear meaning to indicate that the point is to gain a transcendent knowledge, and then to pass that knowledge onto others.  These folks were already around during the writing of the Scriptures.  They were called “Gnostics” taken from the greek word for “knowledge.”  So while it might be new to some readers, the idea of special knowledge leading to transcendence is simply the same old heresy being repeated in a new context.

What do you think?  (Melissa, I’m surprised you haven’t weighed in yet…)

6 Replies to “A New Kind of The Same Old Heresy”

  1. Ha! I have been watching closely as you’ve covered the new book, but I have so far chosen not to weigh in because I haven’t read the book, so I wouldn’t be saying anything new. I’m saving up some Amazon giftcards to get it.

    The one thing I can point out that I see in this particular post:

    “But to be honest, either he has never actually listened to our side of the argument (“our side” being those who hold to verbal plenary inerrancy) or he’s not interested in what we have to say, or both.”

    I don’t think either of those is true. Don’t forget that McLaren, Jones, et al. all pretty much come from conservative evangelical backgrounds. They are as familiar as you are with the arguments for inerrancy, atonement theology, etc. And they do care. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t seek to refute them.

    I actually find some of their writings (most notably, “Adventures in Missing the Point,” McLaren and Campolo) don’t hit home with me because I was brought up in the mainline church. I’m familiar with the concepts, but mostly from Bible Belt culture and attending church with friends.

    I think the idea that they are unfamiliar with or don’t care about the evangelical point of view is just not true.

    And although I haven’t read the book, I think you should look into Gnosticism a little more. Pretty sure the gospel of John is closer to being Gnostic than McLaren ever will be.

    There’s my two cents so far. Looking forward to the next few posts, and I may have to go ahead and order this book sooner than I thought!
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..My first foray into Moltmann, pt. 1 =-.

    1. He may have been brought up in a conservative evangelical place, but it looks nothing like the conservative evangelical place in which I live. That is my point. In my “straw man” post, I hope to address that more in depth. I feel like he attacks only the easiest targets in conservative evangelical culture. (Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson, etc–but of course he doesn’t name any names).

      And regarding gnosticism, I will certainly look into it. My impression of gnostics (and it’s been a few years since I studied them back at UNC) is that they said the true way to transcendence or to the real understanding of the truth is through special knowledge. A divine spark, etc. There were obviously other tenets to their beliefs, dealing with matter vs. energy (for example), but I am simply talking about the idea that the key to spiritual life is a special knowledge. Because that’s clearly what McLaren is saying in this book.

      I do look forward to you reading it and weighing in. You’ll keep me honest! Thanks for the comment.

  2. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
    -Ecclesiastes 1:9

    Any respectable Christian claiming to have any “new” knowledge is already suspect in my book. A new point of view or story to explain a principle maybe, but not basic truth. Faith like a child, not a PhD.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jeff. You make a short but really good point about “faith like a child.” Jesus speaks of children as if they have already arrived. McLaren speaks of intellectuals (and specifically liberal intellectuals) as the ones who have arrived.

  3. It’s easy to tear apart a group that you know you can wildly misrepresent and get away with it because it’s hip to do so. Just throw in a few sparse references to Fred Phelps or some jerk who call himself evangelically conservative and paint the rest of us with a wide brush.

    I believe the theme in the Gospel of John are directly counter to the central points of Gnosticism, which rejects that the saving work of Christ on the cross is what causes salvation (i. e. John 14). Ben you are right about Gnosticism, your religion major does come in handy sometimes. I think it would take a pretty loose interpretation of bits and parts of John in order to be portrayed as “gnostic”

    Kevin DeYoung has a great review of the book:


    DeYoung is kinder to McLaren than he should be – much kinder than Mclaren is to his opponents.

    From DeYoung’s conclusion:

    For all the talk of being new (xi) and at the same time ancient (255), McLarenism is neither. It is
    old fashioned liberalism. McLaren, despite his historical plundering, has no right to claim he is in
    tradition of Martin Luther because he finds “sustaining inner strength,” or in the tradition of the
    Wesleys because “our hearts can be ‘strangely warmed’” (227). This is like saying I’m in the tradition
    of Ignatius because I have strong convictions. It doesn’t work. McLaren stands in the tradition of
    Ritschl, Harnack, Rauschenbush, and Whitehead, plain and simple.
    In their book 20th-Century Theology, Grenz and Olson, no rabid fundamentalists they, describe
    classic liberalism in five points:
    1. Liberals believe doctrine needs to develop to meet the needs of contemporary thought.
    2. Liberals emphasize the need to reconstruct traditional beliefs and reject the authority of tradition
    and church hierarchy.
    3. Liberals focus on the practical and ethical dimensions of Christianity.
    4. Liberals seek to base theology on something other than the absolute authority of the Bible.
    5. Liberals drift toward divine immanence at the expense of transcendence.
    McLaren fits each of these points like a glove. H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous description of
    liberalism has not lost its relevance: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom
    without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.”

    1. Thanks for the comment, Josh! I read Kevin’s review yesterday, among some others that I will reference later.

      You do make an interesting point about being able to get away with ridiculing conservative evangelicals. We believe some things that, on face value, are drastically easy to confuse for beliggerent superstitious primitivism. Insulting a theological liberal is insulting the predominant academic worldview (at least in the west), making it nearly impossible to criticize.

Comments are closed.