When I began reading Brian McLaren’s new book, A New Kind of Christianity, I planned to review it here upon finishing the entire work. However, after reading four chapters, I’ve realized that the issues raised by this book need to be addressed in more depth than a single blog post can provide. So, I’ll be addressing the issues in a series of posts as they arise during my reading of the book.
It is commonly said that a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover. And while I liked the cover of McLaren’s book, the first page of the preface disturbed me by declaring, “the Christian faith in all its forms is in trouble” (xi, emphasis original). I was quite surprised by this all encompassing claim. Really? In trouble in all its forms? This strikes me as a rather hasty generalization that is hardly accurate. When I encounter such an unsubstantiated claim on the first page, it does not give me a great deal of hope for the strength of the rest of the book.
After the preface, McLaren goes to give some introductory and autobiographical information about how he came to the conclusion that current Christianity is such a mess. He gives away some of his prejudices early indicating a distaste for creed and doctrine. He is not so interested in systems of beliefs as he is ways of believing. I’m not all that sure what he means by “ways of believing.” I assume it will be explained as the book progresses. At this point it seems to indicate an emphasis on authentic and irenic interaction among those with whom one disagrees. I’m not all that sure why that is incompatible with doctrine, but McLaren plays the two off one another anyway.
The book raises ten questions in two parts. The first part appears to be more theologically oriented while the second looks to address more practical issues. We shall see when we get there.
Chapter four jumps into the theological issues head first asking the question: “What is the overarching story of the Bible?” McLaren explicitly rejects the historic understanding of the Bible telling the story of creation-fall-redemption. His characterization of the model he rejects leaves much to be desired. The bulk of the chapter is devoted to the way in which McLaren understands the Patristic period of church history as being corrupted by a combination of Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy. By Platonic, McLaren is focusing on the concept of the ideal forms and the ultimate unity of reality bound up in those forms. By Aristotelian, he is focusing on the dynamic quality of changing things which is seen as essence of reality. This is the old problem of the one and the many. How do you account for both unity and diversity in the same universe?
McLaren is arguing against what he calls “conventional Christian theology” (43). In this so-called conventional theology creation is seen as a Platonic state of static being which is corrupted by the fall (which McLaren doesn’t take as biblical) into an Aristotelian state dynamic becoming. This state is hated by the static Neoplatonic God (McLaren calls Theos) who finds a way to rescue some by means of violence returning them to a state of pristine static being while condemning the rest to a morphed version of the Greek Hades. This so-called conventional theology is anti-creational, anti-story, anti-material, anti-becoming, etc.
The problems with this scheme are significant. While the Patristics did adopt some Greek language, they did not adopt the historic meaning of that language in any unqualified way. For example, they used the language of “person” to describe the diversity within the Trinity. They used the languge of “being” to describe the unity in the Trinity. In this way they dealt with the problem of the one and the many in a way that never occurred to the Greeks, nor could have in their worldview. Remember, the reconciliation of the one and the many was a problem for the Greeks, not for the Christians, at least not long term anyway. So, the early church used the Greek language, but they radically transformed the concepts. McLaren’s dualistic characterization of early Christianity as playing the one against the many is simply incorrect. Another problematic example for McLaren comes with the formulation of the doctrine of the incarnation. Once again we have the problem of the one person of Jesus and the dual natures of Christ, the one and the many. The church fathers utilized Greek language, but their combination of unity and diversity in the incarnation is neither Platonic nor Aristotelian. McLaren’s argument simply doesn’t deal with the historical evidence. He primarily refernces secondary sources in the notes and provides no interaction with Christian primary source material in the body of the text and only superficial references in the notes. Its hard to make a case against history when you demonstrate no evidence of actually having read it.
Furthermore, the dualistic accusation leveled at so-called conventional theology of salvation off to immaterial heaven away from the corrupt material of creation is problematic. Granted, there are plenty of Christians who are rather Platonic in their thinking that the goal of Christianity is to be swept from the earth to a disembodied spiritual experience in heaven. The problem is that this folk religion is neither orthodox nor historic Christianity. The creeds strongly affirm the resurrection of the body with the implication that matter in itself is not evil but the object of God’s redemptive purposes. Historic evangelical theology likewise has affirmed the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth at the consummation of God’s purposes in history. This is hardly the dualism that McLaren describes.
To sum up, McLaren’s argument is both misleading and misdirected. It is misleading with regard to early Christian theology. It is misdirected in that it ought to be directed toward erroneous understandings of Christianity rather than historic and orthodox Christianity. I suspect, unfortunately, that many of McLaren’s readers may not be well read in the early church fathers and, thus, unequipped to read this book critically.