First, watch this discussion between Scot McKnight and Brian McLaren wherein McKnight questions McLaren about some of his more confusing contentions in his books. Namely: (1) Why not just come out and tell people what you believe? (2) How do you square what you are rejecting in A New Kind of Christianity with your earlier affirmations in A Generous Orthodoxy? and (3) You seem to be coming out as a universalist…Is this so? And if it is, what led you to becoming a universalist?
I won’t address all of McLaren’s answers to these questions (although I think you would do well to consider them yourself), but one part specifically bothered me. During the talk, McLaren said this:
“To me, there is a peculiar problem in a lot of religious readers, where their approach is ‘I don’t care what the person might have to say to me, I want to know if he’s right.’ And so they go into the reading experience, or the discussion experience, with an assumption that they’re already right, they already see things the way they should be, and they’re kind of going with a checklist: ‘Is he right on this? Is he right on this? Is he right on this?’
The experience of that for a writer like me — and I was a pastor and preacher for many years and it was the same in preaching — is when you’re in the presence of those people, it feels like an inquisition. And they’re doing a kind of constant heresy hunt. My personal feeling is that there’s a place for that, but maybe we could say, ‘Those who live by the sword, die by the sword; those who live by boundary-maintenance die by boundary-maintenance; those who live by heresy-hunting die by heresy-hunting,’ and so there are consequences to that.
So that’s the first thing I would say, it’s interesting that some people, that’s the way they read a book, ‘What does he believe about this and this.’
For example, when I wrote a book Everything Must Change, I was stunned that people would read that book (where I talked about poverty, I talked about war, I talked about the environment) and all they wanted to talk to me about was atonement theory. And I thought, ‘25,000 children are dying from preventable diseases today, and that just gets passed by.’ So to me, that’s a significant problem.”
I want to be extremely careful with this. I’m aware that questioning his answer simply fits me into the “heresy-hunting” category. I don’t want to be criticized for passing by something he happens to think is important to what I happen to think is important. And I certainly don’t want to ignore the 25,000 children dying from preventable diseases, nor do I want to ignore pointless wars or catastrophic oil spills. If that’s what heresy-hunters do, he’s absolutely right: That’s a significant problem.
But the primary problem here is not what they’re passing by, but what he is. Notice the telling look of disgust on McLaren’s face when he says “atonement theory.” I get what McLaren’s trying to do here — all he wants to talk about is pressing social issues, but these annoying fundamentalists keep getting hung up on what he says about the cross. How frustrating.
McLaren has just taken two issues and hierarchically switched them. To Brian, the critical issue he is concerned about also happens to be the critical issue Jesus is concerned about: that the gospel be “good news to the poor” (as he expressed at the beginning of the video). And “the poor” means the monetarily poor, the oppressed, the rejected, the outcasts, etc. The center of the gospel for McLaren is Jesus reaching down to earth and rescuing the poor from what the rich have done to them, saving them from the worst kind of sin — social injustice. The atonement, then, exists to serve Jesus’ ultimate mission of making things on earth like they are in heaven.
That all sounds great. And I’m all for the gospel being good news for the poor, and I think Jesus did come to rescue the oppressed. I’m not about to do away with any of that.
But it seems that getting in the way of McLaren’s message in Everything Must Change is dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s on his atonement theory. And this is where we start to get at the heart of McLaren’s big mistake. To McLaren, atonement theory is just that; a theory. It doesn’t necessarily come from divine revelation. Even the New Testament is a human understanding of a spiritual reality. The Bible is a “cultural library” (as he puts it in chapter 2 of A New Kind of Christianity) that helps us understand what people throughout history have thought about God; it isn’t divinely inspired (except that it “inspires”) and it doesn’t have any real authority (that would make it too much like a constitution, after all, and the Bible is a narrative). That’s all theology really is — humans speculating about God.
But atonement theory should not be the secondary issue McLaren makes it out to be. To McLaren’s critics, the atonement is the core of the Christian faith. It is a message of “first importance — that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures” (I. Cor. 15). Paul has a message for Timothy that is “trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (I Tim. 1:15). “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). These words are important lessons, McLaren’s caricature of the Bible as a constitution notwithstanding.
If Jesus is a “propitiation” for our sins, he must be propitiating something. And even if you don’t like that word and would prefer “atoning sacrifice” or whatever, something is still being atoned for. It’s sin. Our sin. And that’s the worst kind. We’ve transgressed against God (which has social effects to be sure), and Jesus offers himself in our place. But McLaren doesn’t like talking about Jesus like that; it’s too much like the Greco-Roman narrative rather than the Jewish one. And so he pushes the atonement to the side and calls it the “atonement theory” that Christians get hung up on, and doesn’t really help us aid 25,000 dying children.
McLaren’s universalist tendencies come into play here, too. What’s the best thing we can do for 25,000 children dying of preventable diseases? Yes, feed them, help them, cure them — even better, adopt them. We have the means, praise the Lord. But if we give them bread without offering them the Bread of Life, we accomplish nothing. They will still perish because they’ve sinned, and we never offered them Jesus, the righteous. We don’t make hell go away by ignoring it, any more than ignoring the fire will keep our house from burning down. But then we come alongside the person who’s lost their house and say “I know you’re house is gone, but I know of something better.” Or, “I know you have no drinkable water, but I know of a water that will truly quench your thirst.”
That’s good news to the poor.