Interest in narrative preaching has been on the rise as of late, and some leaders of emerging expressions of Christianity challenge the faithfulness of preaching propositionally from narratival texts. They argue that faithfulness to a narrative in preaching means drawing that genre into the sermon. This post aims to evaluate the strength of such a claim by looking at the question: Is propositional preaching faithful to narratival texts?
In seeking an answer to this question, we must ask how the authors of the biblical narratives (e.g., the cannonical gospels, Acts) intended them to be understood. Did the biblical authors intend their narratives to be bare narratives or did they also intended the narrative to carrry theological meaning and significance about God and his self-revelation in Christ and the Spirit? The obvious answer is that the biblical authors intended their narratives to bear meaning. The historical accounts of the life of Christ do not come to us without authorial interpretation of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The historical accounts bear theological significance, and the narratives are intended to lead the reader or hearer to draw conclusions about the events narrated. Certainly the conclusions can be stated in propositional form. Thus, the narratives imply propositional truth. Sometimes the narrators make the propositions explicit; other times they are implicit. For example, Matthew repeatedly explains events in the life of Christ in terms of Old Testament prophecy. The propositional implication that Matthew intends his story to make is that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah king foretold by the prophets in former times.
The task of the preacher is to aid the church in understanding the significance of the narrative and to guide the church in living in accordance with the text. The most unambiguous way to do this is to elucidate the theological and propositional truths that flow out from the stories. The stories bear meaning. The question for us this: what do they mean? This question is legitimately answered in propositional form.
In light of these considerations, we need not think we are being unfaithful to the text or the genre of the biblical narratives by preaching propositional sermons from them. The narratives carry implicit (and sometimes explicit) propositions because history carries meaning. This is not to say that there is not a time or place for narratival preaching. The narratival genre can certainly be used faithfully in biblical preaching. It is to say that one can be both faithful to the narrative and preach the narrative propositionally at the same time.
McLaren’s fifth question, addressed in chapters 14 and 15, deals with the content of the gospel. As we might expect by now, he picks up some aspects of the gospel and leaves others out. The problem is that the part he leaves off is crucial. McLaren only mentions justification when he sets it against the concept of the kingdom of God. He doesn’t see the gospel as dealing with the problem of sin and human rebellion. Rather, for McLaren, the gospel is the message about God’s peace-making kingdom of liberation. It is, of course, a false “either/or” to set the Pauline doctrine of justification against the good news of the kingdom in the gospels. They work together and do not contradict. McLaren seems to miss this, though.
He likes to speak of entering the kingdom and of the gospel as bringing a new birth. The problem, once again, is that there is no clear reason why new birth is needed. If a person is not naturally a sinner, then why do they need to be born again? If they are not dead in sin and tresspasses, why do they need regeneration.
McLaren is using traditional language, but he is using it with new meaning, which he reveals when he says,
“No wonder Jesus called people to repent: if the kingdom is at hand we need to adjust our way of life and join in the joyful, painful mission of reconciliation right now, ASAP!” (140).
In this scheme, repentance and regeneration are not elements in a divine work of grace to transform spiritually dead sinners to spiritually alive and justified believers. For McLaren, repentance and regeneration involve getting one’s act together by adjusting one’s way of life. This, of course, is not Christianity. Christianity has never been a matter of simply getting our acts together and joining Jesus in his mission. Christianity has always been about the reality that we are incapable of getting our acts together. We cannot make him the object of our allegiance unless he makes us the object of his redemptive, covenantal, bringing the dead to life, justifying, sanctifying, and God-glorifying love in his substitutionary death and resurrection. McLaren’s gospel is no gospel at all. It is not news about something that has happened; it is advice about how to live. But the heart of Christianity is not how we live. The heart of Christianity is what Jesus has done for us and in our place. McLaren has moved himself in theological liberalism and historic Pelagianism, neither of which are authentic Christianity. McLaren’s new kind of Christianity is nothing new; it is old-as-the-fall moralism.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. The message of the kingdom of God in the Lordship of Christ is essential to the gospel. But half a gospel is no authentic gospel. The way into the kingdom is through the grace of justification accomplished on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection in our place and for our sins. McLaren rightly emphasizes the theme of kingdom, but when he sets the kingdom against justification, he neuters the gospel and walks away from Christianity.
McLaren next devotes two chapters to the Jesus question, and I was pleasantly surprised by much of what he said. In chapter 13, he works mainly with John’s gospel to paint a picture of Jesus which focuses largely on Jesus’ work in inaugurating a new creation. McLaren is reacting against some views of Jesus which see him as only having come to save souls from hell. I agree with McLaren that Jesus should be understood as having come to do more than save people from hell, but I also believe he did not come to do any less. Drawing particularly on Genesis and the prophets, McLaren outlines Old Testament themes that are developed in the fourth gospel highlighting Jesus’ work to bring about a new creation. I didn’t find much to argue with in McLaren’s assesment, though I did find it incomplete as a statement on the person and work of Christ. He deals with Christ’s work of new creation, but he pays little attention to Jesus’ death as purchasing forgiveness for sin. I imagine this is because he has written the fall out of the story choosing to summarize the biblical story as “creation, liberation, peace-making” rather than as “creation, fall, redemption.” If the fall does not figure into the scheme, then the traditional understanding of Jesus’ substitutionary death finds little place. This, of course, is a mark against the author.
This leads to a further problem with McLaren’s understanding of Jesus within his understanding of the biblical narrative. He wants desparately for Jesus to be seen as the great worker of new creation, but it is hardly clear in his scheme why new creation is needed. In the traditional scheme, new creation is the clear answer to the fall and the curse that came with it. Human rebellion plunged creation into a state of decay that was not originally natural to it. If this problem is to be dealt with, universal renewal of creation is the only answer. But McLaren has replaced fall with liberation and redemption with peace-making. But if the great story doesn’t have a fall, then from what do we need liberating? If creation has not suffered an ontological change due to the sinful rebellion of human beings, then why does it need to be ontologically renewed? McLaren rightly focuses on new creation as the biblical solution to the problem; the problem is that he has lost sight of the problem.
McLaren’s third question has to do with whether or not God is violent. He readily admits that he is highly disturbed by many images of God that involve divine smiting, genocidal conquest, and quasi-geocidal flooding (99). He resolves this issue within the hermeneutical framework outlined in the earlier chapters on the Bible.. If the bible is really a library of cultural perspectives on God that mature over time, then the earlier and more disturbing accounts of divine wrath and punishment can be seen as immature, incomplete, and often incorrect steps on the way to a correct, mature, and enlightened understanding of who God really is. He sees passages like the flood narrative as immature human attempts to grapple with who God is. He also rejects the traditional understanding of hell as eternal conscious torment. At least four problems arise in McLaren’s account of the biblical text with regard to God’s character.
First, McLaren is looking for moral examples in the Old Testament judgment narratives like that of the Noahic flood. He is worried because this text and others have been used to justify genocide. If God sometimes wipes out entire races of people, well, then it must be okay to do that. The problem with McLaren’s reading, and of those against which he is reacting, is that they approach the Bible as a handbook for moral living, which it manifestly is not. Since some parts of the Bible don’t fit McLaren’s morality, he has to find ways to explain them away. But the flood is not set up as an example of how we should live and conduct ourselves with regard to other peoples or races. The flood narrative is a declaration of the deep wickedness of human sin, the justice of God in judging the deep wickedness of human sin, and the great mercy of God for preserving a remnant instead of wiping out the human race for its deep wickedness and sin. We are not supposed to come to the flood narrative and look for the “moral of the story.” We are supposed to come to the flood narrative and see a God who takes wickedness seriously and justly judges it. We are also supposed to see a God who uses one family to bring salvation to the sin-torn world.
McLaren’s mistake is that he responds to the moralistic approach with a cultural library approach rather than a biblical-theological approach. The biblical theological approach asks what this text tells me about God and God’s self-revelation in Christ. The text tells us that a just God cannot allow sin to go unpunished, and it witnesses to Christ in that he took our punishment in his death. The text tells us that God is perfectly holy, and it witnesses to the obedience and sinlessness of Christ as the perfectly holy revelation of God. The text tells us that even in judgment, God is merciful, and that, in Christ, God extends mercy for salvation through judgment. The Noahic flood does not give us immature human speculation about God; it gives us an image of God whose standards of righteousness are to be taken seriously, and who is committed to the redemption of his creation.
Second, McLaren finds himself so deeply offended by a God who judges an entire race because McLaren has no doctrine of sin. Remember, he has written the Fall out of the story. In his scheme, human beings are not under the curse of a holy God for their transgression, they are on an evolutionary journey towards maturity. They are not in need of redemption and deliverance through judgment, they are in need of enlightenment through conversation. When the deep and total nature of human sin and rebellion is understood in light of the profound and glorious holiness of God, then the flood narrative reveals a God who is not only just but deeply merciful.
Third, McLaren’s doctrine of God (yes, he has doctrines as well, even if they are false) demonstrates the failure of his interpretive approach to the Bible. If the Bible is a collection of evolving understandings of God, the earlier of which are incorrect and immature, then the reader must choose the biblical texts that he thinks evidence the most mature understanding of God. In this approach, the reader stands as the enlightened judge of scripture, and scripture is not able to function as a guide, let alone an authority.
Fourth, McLaren says that Jesus is the most mature and greatest revelation of a nonviolent God. I guess he missed those several passages where Jesus uses the fear the destruction of body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28) where worm does not die and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:48). The Greek term translated as “hell” in both of these texts is the word geenna (Gehenna), which is the perpetually burning trash dump outside the city that was cursed because a couple of Judean kings sacrificed their children to pagan false gods there. Whatever you call it, the context indicates that it involves the destruction of the soul and the body in a perpetual fire. The imagery is intensely scary, especially for those, like the disciples, who grew up taking their trash to the Jerusalem city dump. No matter how much it may offend Brian McLaren, Jesus is using the fear of violent punishment to motivate repentance. I’d like to see McLaren fit that into his reading of gentle-meek-and-mild-moral-example Jesus. Maybe he’s reading one of those color-coded Bibles. You know, the ones where they give different colors to the various words of Jesus to indicate the probability of whether he actually said what the text says he said.
In chapter seven, McLaren strikes out against those who read the Bible as if it were a legal constitution. He decries the ills that have been promulgated under this hermeneutical scheme. I am sympathetic to some of his worries. The denominational equivalents of supreme courts are clearly not in line with biblical teachings on church order and discipline.
Rather than a legal constitution, McLaren proposes that the Bible is “the library of a culture and community – the culture and community of people who trace their history back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (81). Libraries, McLaren argues, can be both authoritative and contain different views. In fact, McLaren defines a culture as, “a group of people who say different things about the same things.” Thus, the so-called librariness of the Bible leads one to expect it to have inconsistencies.
To begin with, McLaren’s definition of a culture is so inadequate that it is edging toward ridiculous. A group of people who say different things about the same thing? A simple thought experiment will demonstrate the problem with this definition. Say you take a Saudi Muslim and an American Christian and put them in a group. Then ask them both a question about who God is. The Muslim might say God is one and entirely transcendent. The Christian might say God is triune and both imminent and transcendent. Here we have a group of people saying different things about the same thing, and they clearly do not share the same culture.
Beyond this, McLaren’s approach to the Bible is incoherent. His understanding of the Bible as a cultural library leads him to expect internal inconsistency in the scriptures. However, he still wants to say that the Bible functions to uniquely guide the church unlike any other written work. The problem should be obvious: how can a text that gives contradictory and inconsistent counsel been seen as a trustworthy or even adequate, let alone unique and inspired, guide for anything?
A simple example will demonstrate the problem. McLaren raises the issue of scriptural instruction relating to one’s enemy. He points out that Matthew 5:44 tells us to love our enemies, while Psalm 139:19 tells us to hate them. The problem is that McLaren is approaching this question with a flat hermeneutic. He is not taking into account genre, context, or the progressive nature of revelation. He is not stopping to ask whether or not the ocassion of hating one’s enemy is held up as worthy of imitation. Any first year seminarian knows that the Psalms are not intended to be read the same way the historical narrative of the gospels is intended to be read. McLaren’s flat approach to scripture falls flat on its face.
In his scheme, scripture is not really the guide no matter how much he says it is. When McLaren comes to the text and finds alleged inconsistency or contradiction, then he himself must stand over the text as a judge. He chooses the text by which he would like to be guided. He is the final authority. His experience, emotions, and presuppositions rule over the text as he chooses which bits and pieces he likes and which he does not. This is the wolf of arrogance wearing the sheep’s clothing of false humility.
McLaren’s problem is that he sees the Bible as a conversation, and in this regard, he has recast the scriptures in his own image. The Bible is not a conversation, it is revelation and proclamation.
Having rejected his faulty Greco-Roman interpretation of the historic Christian reading of the biblical story of creation-fall-redemption, McLaren proceeds in chapters 5-8 to cast a new vision for how the Bible should be read and appropriated. His vision is organized around three main biblical narratives.
The first is the narrative of Genesis. This narrative, McLaren states, is not about a God who angrily consigns his creation to the cosmic trash bin, as if this were ever an orthodox Christian position. Rather, it is about a God who creates a world full of change, becoming, evolution, and liberty. The human creatures in this world disobey God and are, thus, pushed from the garden from life as hunter-gatherers to life as agriculturalists.
So, McLaren recasts as progress what has historically been understood in terms of “Fall.” The curse of Genesis 3 has been reduced to mere consequences for bad behavior. While human disobedience does have negative effects like murder and corruption, its not all bad because humanity is progressing from hunter-gatherers to nomadic herders to agriculturalists to city dwellers and finally empire builders. Instead of being about human alienation from the God who is life due to rebellion, in McLaren’s scheme Genesis 3 is about socio-economic progress.
As the Genesis story progresses, McLaren rightly highlights God’s mercy for clothing and protecting Adam and Cain as well as rightly empasizing God’s kindness in sparing Noah from the flood. The problem is that he passes over those passages which indicate how seriously God takes transgression which must be dealt with if we are to have a biblical understanding of God’s holy character. Yes, God spared Noah in his kindness, but God also wiped out every other living being on the planet in judgment for their wickedness. McLaren happily glosses over this grim feature of the text concluding that Genesis is “a story about the downside of ‘progress'” (14). His reading leaves out significant aspects of this text bending it out of shape from a story of humanity spiraling down into degradation to a story of “progress.” The suggestion is so absurd it is virtually impossible to take it as a serious reading of the text.
The second major narrative is that of the Exodus in which, according to McLaren, God sides with the oppressed and vulnerable to set them on a journey towards freedom and peace. While God certainly did side with the oppressed, it is worth pointing out that he sided with them in accordance with the promise he made to Abraham to give him a mutitude of descendants. McLaren likes to emphasize how deeply God gets involved in the human plight. And this is a feature of the text that will make it popular. People like the idea of God getting involved. And they should, because God has gotten involved. McLaren brings in aspects of biblical truth but recasts them in a surprisingly modernist model of progress. The presence of some truth gives it an appearance of biblical fidelity. But a careful reading of McLaren in contrast to the Bible demonstrates that his reading of scripture fails to do justice to the text.
The third major narrative is the hope for a peaceful kingdom. Here McLaren goes to the Davidic kingdom and the prophets as looking forward to a world of peace and harmony. Again, this is indeed a biblical vision of the future, and it is one that God is, in some ways, implementing in the present. However, McLaren takes Isaiah and turns him into an ideological platform for a liberal socio-political agenda. Texts that refer to the youthfulness of the one hundred year old are recast as calling for the protection of vulnerable people particularly through the means of a good health care system. While this is important, it is hardly what is going on in Isaiah. Isaiah’s vision of new creation is not primarily about socio-political fixes to various problems. It is about God’s ultimate dealing with the human problem, namely sin and death. Creation wide discord and death are the result of sin, but McLaren has written sin and the just punishment of death out of the story. This is why he can’t read Isaiah rightly. Isaiah is dealing with the problem in Genesis that McLaren has rewritten as progress. Isaiah is casting a vision of a day when one hundred years old is youthful not because the elderly have good health care but because God has exiled death and the one hundred year old is going to live forever as a result. McLaren’s reading strips the text of its great hope for an ultimate restoration of the created order and replaces it with a hope for best-we-can-do sorts of fixes in the present. That, of course, is not to say that we don’t need to protect vulnerable people. It is to say that Isaiah is speaking of something much bigger than McLaren can see.
Ultimately, while McLaren chastises a so-called fundamentalist reading of the Bible as ethical imperative, he essentially does the thing he rejects. McLaren is arguing for a distinct moralism that sees the Bible as providing a plan or vision for implementing goodness and justice among the peoples of the earth. He wants the biblical values of goodness and justice to be the interpretive key for understading the Bible. The problem is that ethical imperatives for goodness and justice are not the center of the Bible. The central story of the Bible claims that human beings lack the ability to do justice and goodness and stand in need of a rescuer to restore them to a state of goodness. The problem is that McLaren has already rejected this reading of scripture, and in so doing, he has jackhammered the foundation for any hope of a world in which justice and goodness reign. The gospel that Jesus dies for our sins and was raised bodily from the dead is the central story of the scriptures, and goodness and justice can only reign in a world where Christ, the good and just One, reigns supreme.