This is the fifth post interacting with Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. Please remember that I cannot reproduce the book in these posts. I will do my best to summarize without being overly simplistic or reductionistic. Each post will be two parts. The first will be a summary of McLaren’s discussion and the second will be my reflections.
The Gospel Question: What is the Gospel
The question of the gospel is critical. It is critical because in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says it is. McLaren specifically sets out to refute the following line of reasoning:
I had always assumed that “kingdom of God” meant “kingdom of heaven, ” which meant “going to heaven after you die,” which required believing the message of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which I understood to teach a theory of atonement called “penal substitution,” which was the basis for a formula for forgiveness of original sin called “justification by grace through faith.” (138)
This description of the gospel now explicitly clarifies what McLaren believes the six-line diagram of Christianity to be teaching. He calls those that hold to the six-line diagram to “repent” as he has done (138).
So what is the gospel? McLaren calls us to read Paul through the Gospels because as we do so we will ultimately be reading Paul through Jesus. This means then that the gospel becomes very clear, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) So, what does this mean?
First, the free gift of God is being born again into a new life into a new participation in a new Genesis. Second, it means beginning a new Exodus by passing through the waters of baptism (as opposed the Red Sea). Finally, it means receiving the kingdom of God to become a “citizen of a new kingdom, the peaceable kingdom imagined by the prophets and inaugurated in Christ, learning its ways (as a disciple) and demonstrating in word and deed its presence and availability to all (as an apostle). (139). ”
McLaren argues this from an exposition of Romans where he argues for seven moves that Paul makes (Chapter 15):
- Reduce Jew and Gentile to the same level of need (Rom 1:18-3:20)
- Announce a new way forward for all, Jew and Gentile: the way of faith (Rom 3:21-4:25)
- Unite all in a common story, with four illustrations: Adam, baptism, slavery, and remarriage (Rom 5:1-7:6)
- Unite all in a common struggle and a common victory, illustrated by two stories: the Story of Me and the Story of We (Rom 7:7-8:39)
- Address Jewish and gentile problems, showing God as God of all (9:1-11:36)
- Engage all in a common life and mission (Rom 12:1-13:14)
- Call everyone to unity in the kingdom of God (Rom 14:1-16:27)
This chapter was tough for me. It was tough because for the first time I am having a hard time finding the connection. However, I think that there is something that we need to remember and be reminded of over and over. McLaren says, “Jesus’s gospel of the kingdom must welcome Jews in their Jewishness and Gentiles in their goyishness, and Paul whats to show how that can be. (144)” I say to that a hearty, “AMEN!" We too often ignore the issues related to social identity and that the fact that in Christ, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are on in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)” This points to the fact that “converting” is not converting away from one aspect of your identity but becoming something new, something other.
I struggle though with the bulk of McLaren’s answer to this question. I think that here McLaren has made a move away from what the scriptures teach concerning the gospel. First, I think McLaren contradicts himself. He says that Romans is not a linear text, yet he treats it as such with seven linear moves. He says Paul is not moving from A to Z, yet this is exactly how he treats Romans in his exposition of it. Why? Because Paul actually did think through how he wanted to describe the core beliefs of the Christ following community.
Second, while I appreciate the idea of reading Paul through the gospels this seems to be poor exegesis. We should not reading anything through anything else. We ought to read texts alongside one another. Why do we always have a need to find a “controlling” text? Is it not possible to set these texts next to one another and allow them to inform us? This is especially important due to the reality that the epistles were written prior to the gospels. I understand that there was an oral tradition regarding the gospel narratives that informed Paul’s writing. However, it also seems that Paul had direct influence on Matthew (who most likely wrote from Antioch, Paul’s home church), Mark (who probably traveled with Paul), and Luke (who definitely traveled with Paul). So, it makes sense to all these text to inform one another and not to give primacy to any one of them. If we follow this method we will see that the gospel is not ONLY concerned with penal substitutionary atonement but it is also concerned with victory, liberation, and re-creation.
Finally, to set aside issues of propitiation and to never once deal with Christ’s death and resurrection is deeply problematic. Anyone genuine reading of the gospels points to the cruci-centric nature of the ministry of Jesus. The epistles all point to the crucifixion and the resurrection as the central tenets of the faith.
I think, sadly, McLaren has made a move that authentic followers of Christ cannot make. In his gospel paradigm there is no means by which people are reconciled to their creator and to his creation. He calls for peace, liberation, and re-creation but there is no means by which that is achieved. It is here that we must part ways.