Since some of you asked, here is the handout for my ETS paper, which will give the general sense of my talk.
Machen on McLaren: A New Kind of Liberal?
Michael Wittmer Evangelical Theological Society
Grand Rapids Theological Seminary November 20, 2008
Michael Wittmer, Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus is Not Enough (Zondervan, 2008): argues for an orthodox, postmodern faith that offers a third way beyond the conservative-liberal divide.
Thesis of this paper: many of Brian McLaren’s “new” ideas were expressed 85 years ago by the liberal interlocutors of J. Gresham Machen. See Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (1923; reprinted Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
A. Living like Jesus is more important than believing in him.
1. McLaren states that he believes in the specific, historic doctrines of the Christian faith. In Finding Our Way, he writes that “I affirm, wholeheartedly and humbly, the mystery of the Trinity and the incarnation, Jesus’ role as Savior and Lord and head of the church, and the affirmations of the ancient creeds.” But McLaren does not seem to think that holding them is essential for salvation. While he sometimes says that it matters what we believe, he never says that belief in any specific, historic doctrine of the faith is necessary for salvation, and in fact he often strongly implies the opposite.
For example, in The Last Word and the Word After That, McLaren has his fictional pastor Dan summarize Jesus’ take on the gospel: “It wasn’t ‘hold the right beliefs,’ ‘affirm the right doctrines,’ or anything like that. Instead, Jesus was clearly interested in action, in what we do, in how we treat others especially, and in whether we trust him enough to follow his teaching even if it means difficulty and persecution.” Markus, the wisest character in the book, states that some conservatives wrongly believe that “On judgment day, all God will care about is opening up our skulls and checking our brains…to see if we had the right notion of salvation by grace through faith in there somewhere.”
McLaren counters this extreme view by claiming that God judges people on the quality of their works rather than on what they believe. So pastor Dan exclaims: “How am I supposed to believe that after all Shirley’s father suffered (during the Holocaust), he’s going to burn in hell forever, eternally tortured, because he didn’t believe in Jesus? What kind of God would add his own eternal torture to the obscenity of human torture her father suffered?…If people’s lives end in eternal torture, if every good thing they ever did is swept away into insignificance because they weren’t one of the chosen or they weren’t lucky enough to believe the right things, how can I be calm?”
But what about Jesus’ statement that “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me”? (John 14:6). McLaren warns that we must not read this statement in an exclusive way. Jesus did not mean that “‘I am in the way of people seeking truth and life. I won’t let anyone get to God unless he comes through me.’ The name of Jesus, whose life and message resonated with acceptance, welcome, and inclusion, has too often become a symbol of elitism, exclusion, and aggression.” McLaren fears that, “For some people, it seems that Jesus is not the way to God, but rather he is in the way to God, as if he is saying, ‘No you don’t! You can’t come to God unless you get by me first!”
In McLaren’s A Reading of John 14:6 (posted on his website, a chapter which he chose not to include in The Secret Message of Jesus), McLaren says that “Jesus is the way” means that Jesus is “the way to live” (p. 9). Jesus wasn’t telling the disciples that they needed to believe in Jesus to be saved, but that they should follow his example of inclusive love. McLaren writes:
“If you want to know what God is like,” Jesus says, “look at me, my life, my way, my deeds, my character.” And what has that character been? One of exclusion, rejection, constriction, elitism, favoritism, and condemnation? Of course not! Jesus’ way has been compassion, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusion, and love from beginning to end. But our conventional interpretation of verse 6 seems to say, “Forget all that. Forget everything you’ve seen in me…the way I’ve lived and treated people, the way I’ve accepted prostitutes and tax collectors, the way I’ve welcomed a Roman centurion and a Samaritan woman. Forget all that. Believe instead that God will reject everyone except people who share your doctrinal viewpoints about me, because I won’t let anyone get to the Father unless they get by me first.” It makes me want to scream.
2. Machen wrote that the liberals in his day insisted that “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine,” and that conservatives should focus on “the weightier matters of the law” (Christian ethics) rather than use the “trifling matters” of doctrine to divide the church. Machen responded that doctrines such as Christ’s “vicarious atonement for sin” are not “trifling” and that Christ is not merely “an example for faith” but is “primarily the object of faith.” He explained: “The religion of Paul did not consist in having faith in God like the faith which Jesus had in God; it consisted rather in having faith in Jesus. …The plain fact is that imitation of Jesus, important though it was for Paul, was swallowed up by something far more important still. Not the example of Jesus, but the redeeming work of Jesus, was the primary thing for Paul.”
B. People are basically good and free from original sin.
1. McLaren: while this viewpoint is popular among postmodern innovators, it is less overt in McLaren’s own writings. However, it is clear that he is comfortable with this perspective, as he has written a foreword to one book (Spencer Burke, A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity) and endorsed another (Doug Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing) that explicitly deny original sin. Also compare The Last Word, p. 134-35, where McLaren blames a fixation on the doctrine of original sin for a neglect of social justice in this life.
Also, I heard a radio interview in which McLaren was asked whether Protestant Christians believe that salvation is by grace through faith alone. He answered yes, for we believe that salvation is a gift. There is no quota of works that we must meet, but we simply accept our acceptance by our Creator. This is a provocatively incomplete answer. Why did McLaren omit our need for God the Redeemer? Is there a connection between this omission and Markus’ suggestion that “Maybe God’s plan is an opt-out plan, not an opt-in one”? Does McLaren believe that we are born already on the inside of God’s family?
2. Machen observed that the defining belief of modernity was its “supreme confidence in human goodness.” He wrote that “according to modern liberalism, there is really no such thing as sin. At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.” This absence of sin led Machen to wryly observe that the liberal church “is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task—she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance.” Machen countered that the gospel must begin with sin, for “Without the consciousness of sin, the whole gospel will seem to be an idle tale.”
C. Objection to penal substitution: Why does God demand the sacrifice of his Son to satisfy his wrath?
1. McLaren: I asked Brian about penal substitution, and he replied that he objected to the “penal” part. Elsewhere he summarized the question which troubles postmodern innovators: “If God was going to forgive us, why didn’t he just forgive us? Why did Jesus have to die so that we could be forgiven? Having an innocent person die for guilty people did not seem to solve the ‘injustice’ of forgiveness—it only seemed to add to the injustice. So, why did Jesus have to die?”
2. Machen noted that modern liberals raised the same issue. He wrote: “Modern liberal teachers…speak with horror of the doctrine of an ‘alienated’ or an ‘angry’ God,” for this implies that God is “waiting coldly until a price be paid before He grants salvation.” Liberals deny that “one person” may “suffer for the sins of another,” and “persist in speaking of the sacrifice of Christ as though it were a sacrifice made by some other than God.” They insist that a loving God would forgive without penalty.
Machen replied that “the modern rejection of the doctrine of God’s wrath proceeds from a light view of sin.” He observed: “If sin is so trifling a matter as the liberal Church supposes, then indeed the curse of God’s law can be taken very lightly, and God can easily let by-gones be by-gones.” But “If a man has once come under a true conviction of sin, he will have little difficulty with the doctrine of the Cross.” Machen added that God does not punish someone else for our sin, but “God Himself, and not another, makes the sacrifice for sin…. Salvation is as free for us as the air we breathe; God’s the dreadful cost, ours the gain.”
D. Unite Christians and non-Christians and emphasize our common journey with God.
1. McLaren: in The Secret Message of Jesus, McLaren says that “the thrust of Jesus’ message is about inclusion—shocking, scandalous inclusion.” Rather than “create an in-group which would banish others to an out-group; Jesus wanted to create a come-on-in group, one that sought and welcomed everyone.” Indeed, since the kingdom of God amounts to “purposeful inclusion,” it turns out that the only people excluded from the kingdom are those who exclude others.
McLaren writes: “to be truly inclusive, the kingdom must exclude exclusive people; to be truly reconciling, the kingdom must not reconcile with those who refuse reconciliation; to achieve its purpose of gathering people, it must not gather those who scatter.” And since beliefs tend to exclude those who believe differently, McLaren warns that “Jesus did not come to create another exclusive religion—Judaism having been exclusive based on genetics and Christianity being exclusive based on belief (which can be a tougher requirement than genetics!).”
2. Machen agreed that “The Christian man can accept all that the modern liberal means by the brotherhood of man. But the Christian knows also of a relationship far more intimate than that general relationship of man to man, and it is for this more intimate relationship that he reserves the term ‘brother.’ The true brotherhood, according to Christian teaching, is the brotherhood of the redeemed.”
E. Inclusivism: extends salvation to include those who have not believed in Christ.
1. McLaren: tries to evade the question. He says that it is a detour from his real concern, probably because it focuses on what happens in the afterlife rather than in this one. See his dismissive attitude towards pluralism in A Generous Orthodoxy: “When I say we are linked and bound through Christ’s incarnation to all people, I am not saying all religions are the same, it doesn’t matter what you believe, truth is relative, blah, blah, blah” (emphasis his).
But McLaren does concede in his latest book, Finding Our Way, that “What’s gotten me into trouble, though, is my suspicion that a person can be a follower of Jesus without affiliating with the Christian religion.” And in The Secret Message of Jesus he asks a series of rhetorical questions to imply that members of other religions may become better kingdom citizens than Christians. He writes:
Wouldn’t it be fascinating if thousands of Muslims, alienated with where fundamentalists and extremists have taken their religion, began to “take their places at the feast,” discovering the secret message of Jesus in ways that many Christians have not? Could it be that Jesus, always recognized as one of the greatest prophets of Islam, could in some way be rediscovered to save Islam from its dangerous dark side? Similarly, wouldn’t there be a certain ironic justice if Jesus’ own kinsmen, the Jewish people, led the way in understanding and practicing the core teaching of one of their own prophets who has too often been hijacked by other interests or ideologies? Or if Buddhists, Hindus, and even former atheists and agnostics came from “east and west and north and south” and began to enjoy the feast of the kingdom in ways that those bearing the name Christian have not?
Why does McLaren use the term “former” to describe atheists and agnostics but not Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Jews? Is he saying that people may enter the kingdom without leaving their non-Christian religions behind?
2. Machen said that liberals in his day wanted “a salvation which will save all men everywhere, whether they have heard of Jesus or not, and whatever may be the type of life to which they have been reared.” He replied that such openness would remove the offense of the gospel and change its historic meaning. He wrote: “What struck the early observers of Christianity most forcibly was not merely that salvation was offered by means of the Christian gospel, but that all other means were resolutely rejected. The early Christian missionaries demanded an absolutely exclusive devotion to Christ. …Salvation, in other words, was not merely through Christ, but it was only through Christ.”
F. Focus on this life rather than the afterlife.
1. McLaren claims that we will never overcome our obsession with the afterlife until we get over our hang-ups on hell. He asks: “And doesn’t the preoccupation with hell tempt us to devalue other things that matter? In other words, isn’t hell such a grave ‘bottom line’ that it devalues all other values? It so emphasizes the importance of life after death that it can unintentionally trivialize life before death.”
McLaren worries that we often become so preoccupied with avoiding hell that we forget to do God’s will on earth. As Pastor Dan explains in McLaren’s story, many Christians believe that “This world will soon end, so why worry about justice here and now? All that counts is where you will end up then and there, in the afterlife. Your status there depends on religious piety—on prayer and Bible study and worship, not deeds of compassion and social justice.”
2. Machen said that liberals in his day believed that concern for the next life is “a form of selfishness.” Consequently, “the liberal preacher has very little to say about the other world. This world is really the centre of all his thoughts; religion itself, and even God, are made merely a means for the betterment of conditions upon this earth.”
Machen responded that we must not treat Christianity “as a mere means to a higher end. …Christianity will indeed accomplish many useful things in this world, but if it is accepted in order to accomplish those useful things it is not Christianity.” Those who seek first the kingdom of God will find that “all these things shall be added unto you. But if you seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness in order that all those other things may be added unto you, you will miss both those other things and the Kingdom of God as well.”
Machen agreed that our Christian faith must change the way we live here and now, but he insisted that “there can be no applied Christianity unless there be ‘a Christianity to apply.’ That is where the Christian man differs from the modern liberal. The liberal believes that applied Christianity is all there is of Christianity, Christianity being merely a way of life; the Christian man believes that applied Christianity is the result of an initial act of God.”
Machen would probably disagree with the postmodern innovators who suggest that simply being postmodern enables them to transcend the modern liberal-conservative controversy. Instead, Machen would likely argue that these postmoderns, such as McLaren, repeat too many of the mistakes of modern liberalism to get very far past it. Their “third way” is too much like the old way to become a new way.
1. McLaren differs from modern liberalism: like other postmoderns, he does not deny the miraculous or the supernatural. So he has not denied the existence of God, the deity of Jesus, or the historicity of the resurrection.
2. Machen McLaren is similar to modern liberalism:
a. Ethics > Doctrine
McLaren makes the liberal leap from “doctrine matters less than ethics” to the view that the specific, historic doctrines of the church may not matter at all. He observes that “Our faith has too often become for us just another rigid belief system instead of a unique, joyful way of living, loving, and serving.” The solution, according to McLaren, is to “turn from doctrines to practices,” where “unity is built less around a list of things one professes to believe and more around how one pursues truth and puts beliefs into action through practices. In this way, churches…see themselves as communities of practice.” While I appreciate McLaren’s emphasis on Christian practice, I wonder why we must turn from Christian doctrine to get there. Christian doctrine is the best, dare I say only, resource for loving our neighbor.
b. Reason > Revelation. McLaren accommodates the gospel to culture. Does he say anything that would offend a typical, postmodern person?
 Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 33.
 Brian McLaren, A Reading of John 14:6, p. 11. Online at http://www.brianmclaren.net/emc/archives/McLaren%20-%20John%2014.6.pdf. See also McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 249 and The Last Word (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 183.
 Brian McLaren, The Last Word and the Word After That, 121. It is important to note that the views expressed by the characters in a story are not necessarily the beliefs of the story’s author. On the other hand, we should assume that the author is telling his story to communicate some message, and that the best place to look for his point is in the speeches of his protagonists, or heroes of the story. So while we cannot say with certainty that McLaren holds the same views as Pastor Dan or Markus, neither should we assume that they are vastly different.
 McLaren, The Last Word, 136.
 McLaren, The Last Word, 138.
 McLaren, The Last Word, 85. Cf. p. 138, where Markus summarizes McLaren’s view: “Salvation by grace, judgment by works.”
 McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 70.
 Brian McLaren, More Ready Than You Realize (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 50 (emphasis McLaren’s).
 Brian McLaren, A Reading of John 14:6, p. 11 (emphasis mine).
 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 19, 160.
 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 160, 81 (first emphasis is mine, second is Machen’s).
 Spencer Burke, A Heretics Guide to Eternity (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 64: “Although the link between grace and sin has driven Christianity for centuries, it just doesn’t resonate in our culture anymore. It repulses rather than attracts. People are becoming much less inclined to acknowledge themselves as ‘sinners in need of a Savior.’ It’s not that people view themselves as perfect; it’s that the language they use to describe themselves has changed. ‘Broken,’ ‘fragmented,’ and ‘lacking wholeness’—these are some of the new ways people describe their spiritual need. What resonates is a sense of disconnection.”
Doug Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 120-70: Pagitt says that original sin means that people “suck,” and we know that people “don’t suck.”
 McLaren, The Last Word, 138.
 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 64, 66, 68 (emphasis mine).
 Hear our discussion online at: http://grts.cornerstone.edu/resources/tpoints/fa05.
 Brian D. McLaren, More Ready Than You Realize (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 80.
 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 125, 129-32.
 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 129, 131, 132 (emphasis his).
 McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus ( Nashville: Word, 2006), 163.
 McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 247 (emphasis his).
 McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, 167 (emphasis his).
 McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, 169 (emphasis mine).
 McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 109-10 (emphasis his).
 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 157-58.
 McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 249. Cf. McLaren, The Last Word, 183.
 McLaren, Finding Our Way, 33.
 Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, 216-17 (italics his; boldfaced mine).
 Cf. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 264. Here McLaren appeals to the “C1-C6 Spectrum” controversy in missions, in which missiologists debate whether and to what extent people must forsake their non-Christian religions to follow Jesus. As is his custom, McLaren avoids giving a direct answer to this question, but he seems to favor the “not very much” side. He provocatively writes: “In this light, although I don’t hope all Buddhists will become (cultural) Christians, I do hope all who feel so called will become Buddhist followers of Jesus; I believe they should be given that opportunity and invitation. I don’t hope all Jews or Hindus will become members of the Christian religion. But I do hope all who feel so called will become Jewish or Hindu followers of Jesus. 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.”
 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 122-23.
 McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, 100.
 McLaren, The Last Word, 166 (emphasis his). Cf. p. 83-84, 94, 149-50, 165, 169, 191-92.
 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 147-48, 149.
 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 151, 152 (emphasis his).
 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 155.
 Olson, Reformed and Always Reforming, 12: “Postconservatives emphatically do not consider themselves part of an ‘evangelical left.’ To them, ‘left’ and ‘right’ in theology are both defined by the Enlightenment and modernity, which are increasingly being challenged and marginalized by postmodernity.” See also John Franke, “Generous Orthodoxy and a Changing World,” in A Generous Orthodoxy, 11.
 Brian McLaren, More Ready Than You Realize (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 41.
 Brian McLaren, The Last Word, 197 (emphasis mine).