1: Narrative Question
2: Authority Question
3: God Question
4: Jesus Question
5: Gospel Question
Theological Foundation Recap
6: Church Question
7: Sex Question
8: Future Question
9: Pluralism Question
10: What-Do-We-Do-Now Question
11: Final Thoughts
Brian’s first whipping boy is what he terms the “Greco-Roman six-line narrative.” Many of us are familiar with it’s story:
In Brian’s words, “To be a Christian has required one to believe that the Bible presents one very specific story line, a story line by which we assess all of history, all of human experience, all of our own experience.” (33) His quest for a new kind of Christianity begins by questioning this story line. How does he do this? By claiming that “it’s the shape of the Greek philosophical narrative that Plato taught!” (37)
In two conversations with two separate friends, “a suspicion began to grow in [him]” and he began to “realize it was also the social and political narrative of the Roman Empire.” According to Brian, the historical understanding of God’s Story of Rescue in terms of Creation, Rebellion, Rescue, Re-Creation (or Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation as it’s also known; this is my own re-framing) is Platonic.
According to Brian, this narrative framing mirrors the story line of Platonism: we start with a “Platonic Ideal,” which is a perfect Platonic paradise; from there we fall into darkness, which mirrors Plato’s famous parable, the Cave of Illusion; now our being has been transformed and the Greek blood-god Theos is furious because his perfect world is “spoiled and now decaying;” salvation occurs when the god of this Greco-Roman version of the biblical story finds a way to forgive this fallen, pathetic, detestable creation through justification, atonement, and redemption; those who are forgiven/saved are returned to an “eternal state in which they will be safe forever;” those who are not “are banished to hell-the Greek Hades” and the tainted universe is destroyed. (41-44)
On the one hand Brian’s explanation is barely coherent and fraught with inconsistencies (He also brings in Aristotle and links him to Plato to explain this Greco-Roman narrative. I’m pretty sure that Aristotle would take issue with being so tightly bound to Plato as an extension rather than a replacement!) On the other hand, from the start you are required to agree with this framing, a framing Brian supports with ZERO scholarship and ZERO supporting voices. In fact, another blogger more familiar with the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle insists Brian’s reading of Plato is naive and just plain bad. “McLaren does nobody any favors (especially those of us who love teaching Plato) by inventing a syncretic thought-system that simply does not exist in classical texts.” His imposition of Plato onto the historic orthodox telling God’s Story of Rescue is at best inventive nonsense and worst a bald-face lie. Furthermore, not only is his foundational argument inventive and disingenuous, it is so innovative that he could find no one to support his conclusions! From an argumentative standpoint, it’s not looking too good for Brian. The foundational argument on which the rest of the book hinges (Creation, Rebellion, Rescue, Re-Creation is not the true shape of the biblical narrative ) is indefensible.
Brian ends his explanation of the “Greco-Roman six-line narrative” by claiming, “This is—more or less, and put baldly—the “good news” taught by much of the Western Christian religion…Its true defenders will quarrel with various details here or there, because their version, no doubt, tries to avoid being this starkly dismal.” (44) He claims “this version…keeps popping up in church history.” I’d really like to know where, Brian? I want everyone to see what he has done here: Brian has created a gross, unfair, patently false caricature of both the Story and the God behind the Story. Theos IS NOT REAL. It is a rhetorical device designed to get you to say, “Yeah, that’s a disgusting way to tell the Story. I don’t want to serve that God!” The Straw Man Brian constructs here finds no representation within evangelicalism by neither scholars nor practitioners. Romans Road, 4 Spiritual Laws, Evangelism Explosion, (models which I myself take great issue with) and the Kyperian narrative itself are not this gross caricature.
Instead, what we find is one consistent Story that God has been telling from the beginning:
First, Creation is never presented biblically or theologically as a “perfect state.” It was “good” and the way God intended it to be, which in no way discounts forward motion and progress. In fact, we understand that from the beginning God was taking Creation “somewhere” into the future, where he would ultimately make his dwelling on earth. Furthermore, Rick Warren is biblically and theologically WRONG to suggest that “life on earth is a temporary assignment” and simply “dress rehearsal before the end.”1 The world really is our home; we are earthlings.
Second, “the Fall,” or as I like to frame it Rebellion, is NOT an ontological change in being as Brian and others wrongly suggest, but an ethical shift. We understand the Story to maintain that we are still Images of God (we do not share the sentiments of the 16th century Lutheran, Matthias Flacius, who argued our sin changes us into an Image of Satan!), but we are ethically morally rebellious. The shift is ethical, not ontological, but with ontological consequences: death and disease (and perhaps others at the DNA level); the change is in our will, not being, with massive “being” repercussions. In the words of Cornelius Plantinga, we and the whole of creation are “not the way it’s supposed it be.” How on earth could you argue otherwise?
But as the Story maintains, we are not without hope. Rescue came when the One True God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. The Father sent the Son to live as a human was intended to live when Adam did not through his sinless life, provide the final sacrifice by entering into the Most Holy place by his own blood as a substitute offering in death, and defeat the dark, evil powers through his triumphal bodily resurrection where he has ascended to the right hand of the Father.
Through Jesus Christ and the church (who is the continuing presence of Christ on earth), by the Holy Spirit, God is progressively re-creating the world to the way he originally intended it to be at the beginning. This Story is not Platonic. It is Scripture. Brian tells a very different story, however.
According to Brian, Scene 1 opens with God telling Adam and Eve that they are free with one exception: “If they eat one specific tree, on the day they eat they will die. Notice, the text does not say they will be condemned to hell, be ‘spiritually separated from God,’ be pronounced ‘fallen’ or ‘condemned,’ or be tainted with something called ‘original sin’ that will be passed to their children. There is only one consequence: they will die…not eventually die, but on the day they eat.” (49-50)
Notice what Brian does here: 1) he rejects the historic doctrine of original sin, which places him outside the historic Rule of Faith on this point; 2) he completely misrepresents and misinterprets the text in order to call into question the foundation of the “Greco-Roman six-line narrative,” which rests on the presupposition that human nature is ethically morally rebellious.
Either Brian is ignorant or patently lying when he says the text says ON THAT DAY THEY WOULD DIE. Mainstream commentators agree that the narrative “is concerned not with immediate execution but with ultimate death.”2 Robert Alter—Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkley—in his masterful translation of The Five Books of Moses translates 2:17 thus: “But from the tree of knowledge, good and evil, you shall not eat , for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die.”3. Alter makes it clear that the verbal construction is consistent with other patterns in the Bible used for issuing of death sentences for the future. Brian’s explanation of Genesis 2 is just plain false.
In scene 2, Adam and Eve abuse their freedom and eat of the one forbidden tree in Genesis 3. According to Brian, this is not a Fall in the orthodox sense, it is a “classic coming-of-age story,” (51) in which “God pushes them out of the nest.” Rather than a fall, it is “the first stage of ascent as human beings progress from the life of hunter-gatherers to the life of agriculturalists and beyond.” Instead of punishing them, God “makes clothes for them, mercifully shielding them from their shame at being naked in one another’s presence.” (50)
Rather than being a Christian reading, Brian is actually making a purely Kantian reading of Genesis 3. Similarly to Brian who paints Gen. 3 in a good light, Kant praises Adam for his willingness to make his own moral judgements, rather than blindly follow the instructions of another, even from God4 In “Conjectural Beginning of Human History,” Kant makes clear the Gen. 3 account is, “transition from an uncultured, merely animal condition to the state of humanity, from bondage to instinct to rational control—in a word, from tutelage of nature to state of freedom.”5. Though Brian doesn’t celebrate their rebellion against God, it is clear it is not an episode of mourning. Instead he absolutely mirrors J. Baker’s declaration: “What happens there is not a ‘Fall,’ but an awakening.”6 In fact, Brian doesn’t even frame this and other acts of rebellion as “against God.”
What Brian does not explain here, is that both Adam and Eve aspired to be “as gods,” which was the temptation from the Serpent in the garden to begin with. The ability to “become as gods, knowing good and evil,” was “as lusts to the eyes.”7 The narrative is not about fruit, it’s about power; the story isn’t about a tree, it’s about autonomy, self rule. The promise of the Serpent was “unlimited privileges, unheard-of-acquisitions and gifts8 Ultimately, though, they lost “unsullied fellowship with God.”9 God is not a mother birdie sending Mama Eve and Papa Adam off to better adventures outside the “nest” of the Garden. No, this is expulsion! They aren’t gently “pushed” out of the Garden; they are thrown out! “Sin separates from God. Intimacy with God is replaced with alienation from God.” This is not the story told by Brian, however.
“Since Adam was the only human being who could have resisted temptation, his failure implies that humanity cannot keep covenant with God…humanity at its best rebels in the prefect environment.”10 And rather than celebrating this rebellion, the narrative makes it clear this is a bad thing. A very bad thing indeed. Shame, naked, afraid, expulsion are all terms given to heighten the sense of rupture. Something has ‘happened’ to humanity in Adam’s and Eve’s desire to “become as gods,” not least of which are physical death and separation from God. Romans 5 picks up this theme, a conversation I have already had here. Romans 5:18, 19 in particular make clear that “in Adam” we are condemned (vs. “in Christ” we receive justification and life); “in Adam” we are made sinners (vs. “in Christ” we are made righteous).
As I wrote elsewhere, “Ethically we are morally rebellious because of the ethical violation of Adam: disobeying God; ontologically we receive the consequences for Adam’s disobedience and our sinful nature: condemnation and death. Theologically this cashes out as “original sin,” though the “total depravity” variation is not completely necessary. You can hold a lighter view of depravity (i.e. semi-Augustinian or even semi-Pelagian) and still hold to the orthodox view of original sin. You cannot deny original sin, however, and still be orthodox. That doesn’t make sense with Paul and that’s simply not Christian.”
Next, scenes 3-4 represent the struggles between two forms of life outside the garden: Abel’s simpler/nomadic herder life (which seems more acceptable to God because perhaps nomadic life is not as morally compromised as settled farm life [whatever that means…]) and Cain’s agriculturalist life as a settled farmer, which leads to murder. (51) According to Brian, this represents a descent from primal innocence as much as it represents an ascent.
In scenes 5-6, humanity is distanced from both garden and farm and now congregate in cities. Humanity has become “urbanized,” which fosters systemic injustices. God responds by destroying the earth, because He refuses to let evil go unpunished. He uses Noah in an act of surprising mercy and later repents for destroying the earth. Post-flood, humanity continues its paradoxical ascent-descent by building a massive tower and becoming “empire builders.” Apparently all of this human ingenuity and technological advancement is itself a bad thing, rather than the ethical manner in which said humans use that technology to try and do what Mama Eve and Papa Adam had tried at the beginning: “to become as gods.”
After 11 chapters “this repeated pattern of human stupidity and divine fidelity opens into something new: God calls Abraham and Sarah and imbues them with a new identity as the father and mother of a nation who will be blessed in order to bring blessing to all nations.” (53) First, I would argue that “human stupidity” and “divine fidelity” are misnomers: it isn’t human “stupidity” it’s about individual human sin and rebellion against God in an attempt to “become as gods;” Second, while the Genesis narrative and, more broadly, the Israelites story does revolved around chapter 12 with the calling of Abraham, it seems as though Brian is attempting to pivot God’s entire story around Abraham in order to reduce the Christian faith to be one among three options of reaching God. As I previously mentioned, Brian sits on the Board of Directors for a nonprofit called Abrahamic Alliance, an organization that “exists to unite faithful Jews, Christians, and Muslims who are deeply committed to loving the God of our father Abraham,” “where children of Abraham…enjoy peaceful coexistence and mutual appreciation of our faith is deepened by meaningful encounters with one another…” This association is incredibly key.
This is important for this entire blog post series because I maintain for Brian it really isn’t about Jesus Christ, it’s about God, which is very different than the biblical narrative and historic Rule of Faith. Amazingly, Brian’s retelling of the biblical narrative is Christless. Jesus Christ as exclusive Lord and Messiah is missing. He exclaims, “you cannot serve two masters, Theos and Elohim, the god of the Greco-Roman philosophers and Caesars and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…” (65) On the one hand, his Theos rhetorical device is patently false and intentionally misleading. On the other hand, the god of Muslims is not the same as the One True God incarnated in Jesus Christ. I would even suggest that unless Jews serve Yahshua Mashiach (Jesus Christ) as Lord and Messiah they aren’t really worshiping the same God, because the Holy Scriptures equate Jesus Christ with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I will assert Karl Barth, yet again: “God is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone is God…We cannot be sufficiently eager to insist, nor can it be sufficiently emphasized in the Church and through the Church in the world, that we know God in Jesus Christ alone, and that in Jesus Christ we know the one God.”
In the end, for Brian “if we were looking for some kind of short hand for this narrative…we would refer to the peaceable kingdom of God, the marriage of God and creation, the family of God, or the embodiment of God…the story of the peace-making kingdom ignites our faith with a sacred vision of the future, a vision of hope, a vision of love.” (64-65) While I agree with Brian that God is establishing His Kingdom here on earth now, He will also do so with the future. In pushing his new approach, the peacable-kingdom, this narrative “becomes the desired future toward which the people of God orient themselves, the constellation they set course and sail by, the dream or goal or vision or imagination they pursue.” (63) Unfortunately for Brian’s story, Jesus Christ is not the catalyst for this Kingdom, Jesus Christ is not it’s center, and the “people of God” are not distinguished as the Church of Jesus Christ. (in fact, the word “church” appears only in one chapter…which I find odd and disturbing.) Because for Brian, it’s really all about god, not Jesus Christ.
Now that we’ve explored how Brian tells God’s Story of Rescue, Wednesday we will explore how Brian views the Holy Scriptures. Stay tuned.
- Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Life, 36, 47. [↩]
- Oswalt, Genesis 1-17, 172. [↩]
- Alter, Five Books of Moses, 21. [↩]
- Oswald, Genesis, 211. [↩]
- Kant, Kant on History, 60 [↩]
- J. Baker, “The Myth of Man’s ‘Fall’—A Reappraisal,” ExpTime 92 (1980/1981) 235-37, p. 236. [↩]
- Alter, Five Books of Moses, 24. [↩]
- Oswald, Genesis, 208. [↩]
- Oswald, Genesis, 208. [↩]
- Waltke, Genesis, 100. [↩]