Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Generous Orthodoxy, part two

All of this being said, one of the immediate questions that might confront the reader of this book was this: why is a book dedicated to promoting “generous orthodoxy” so ungenerous about those who are orthodox? Perhaps McLaren or his editors noted the oddity, because he recognized that he was “far harder on conservative Protestant Christians who share that heritage than I am on anyone else” (35). Perhaps this was simply the function of the kind of book he was writing; or perhaps he is defensive because he makes several unusual theological moves in several areas that appear to challenge the “traditional” faith of conservative Protestants.

One such move was his discussion of the intention of Jesus to save the “whole world” (100). McLaren suggested that “Jesus did not come to create another exclusive religion.” Rather, he believed that Jesus came to proclaim news that was good for adherents and non-adherents alike. Indeed, the gospel is “universally efficacious for the whole earth before death in history” (108-114). Exactly what this means is unclear (does he mean to affirm universalism?); but it appeared that he suggested that exclusivist positions on the fate of the unevangelized should be significantly revised.

For McLaren, this connected to his thoughts on the biblical propriety of hell. He raised this very question on p. 112, but immediately dodged the issue; essentially, he believed that questions about whether people were going to heaven or hell were the wrong questions to ask. Still, I wondered whether he could have been more forthcoming on how his views on hell relate to the fate of those who never have heard the Gospel.

Also tied together with his commitment to Jesus’ cosmic and loving intentions toward the world are his beliefs about religious pluralism. While I could agree with him that Christ’s incarnation means that we were called to go out toward the world in Christ’s name in word and deed, McLaren was unclear when he claimed: “Ultimately, I hope that Jesus will save Buddhism, Islam, and every other religion, including the Christian religion, which often seems to need saving about as much as any other religion does” (264). What exactly does this mean? That Jesus will cause Buddhists or Muslims follow him (to save them) but remain Buddhists or Muslims and so “save” the world religions (as it appears on 264 and 282n141)? Does this veer close to syncretism? If not, how so? In addition, such language seemed to betray McLaren’s insights on the importance of community and common liturgy for the formation of Jesus’ followers. Do those in Muslim countries not need Christian community or Christian worship? All of these issues raised profound questions about the “orthodoxy” in A Generous Orthodoxy.

In addition, McLaren took a number of shots at Presbyterian theological shibboleths. For example, he expressed difficulty with issues related to divine sovereignty (81) and predestination (186-7). In particular, he provided some questionable historical observations on how (allegedly) Calvin’s thought merged with “mechanical determinism” and “rationalistic philosophy” to produce an intellectual commitment to an universe that is like “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 read and actually happening.” He then observed that “I find it hard to imagine worshiping or loving a deterministic, machine-operator God”; in this, most conservative Presbyterians would concur.

However, I had to wonder whether he actually has ever taken the time to read Reformed theology or history. Not only does he trot out the tired “Calvin versus the Calvinists” argument, but he repeated the old canard about “Calvin himself [overseeing] the execution of fellow Christians for disagreeing with his system, playing the same brutal power and coercion games that Protestants protested (and still protest) among Catholics” (194). He also chimed in with the shopworn shots at “Protestant scholasticism” (205) and the five solas of the Reformation (198). It caused me to wonder if he really was trying to be “generous” to those who are brothers and sisters in Christ.

He also provocatively questioned “the fall” and “original sin” (235) and characterized total depravity as a “depressing topic” with which conservative Protestants seem preoccupied (177). Not content to deal only with total depravity, McLaren also suggested a thorough revision of TULIP: his version was Triune love; Unselfish Election; Limitless Reconciliation; Inspiring Grace; Passionate, Persistent Saints (195-7).

In addition, many Presbyterians will wince as McLaren is repeatedly critical of “systematic theology,” which he characterizes as “conceptual cathedrals of proposition and argument” (151). Particularly guilty here, of course, were conservative (“modernist”) Presbyterians who stubbornly hold on to their “post-medieval formulations” (read here, the Westminster Standards; 189). While unclear on how he would replace current forms of systematic theology—he promoted the work of John Franke and the late Stan Grenz as the best current possibilities—he suggested that emerging theology will be coherent, contextual, conversational, and comprehensive (152-53).

Above all, McLaren believed that “a generous orthodoxy, in contrast to the tense, narrow, controlling, or critical orthodoxies of so much of Christian history, doesn’t take itself too seriously” (155). Indeed, the central principle for theology is semper reformanda, always reforming (189-194). How this principle related to the ancient creeds and the “tradition” that he claimed to be eager to champion was unclear (32); if theology is always reforming, will the future creeds for the postmodern age look anything like ancient or premodern creeds? If they are substantially the same, then why write new creeds? If they are substantially different, then how can one be sure that she is orthodox? Who or what group/authority adjudicates the differences?

All of these things raised profound questions in my mind, at least, about the direction of McLaren’s project. This is not to paint the entire emergent church movement with a broad brush, save as A Generous Orthodoxy is held up as one of the key books for the movement. Still, there are real questions here that McLaren and other emergent leaders need to answer if they will truly unite Christians together in a generous, orthodox movement of God’s Spirit (18).

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