Though some may think of me as an opinionated, narrow-minded curmudgeon, I tend to judge myself as a bit too open-minded. I attempt to be open to and tolerant of new ideas held by others, even though I frequently disagree with them. However, by being tolerant I occasionally find myself in the intellectual company of those whom at second glance I might judge to be heretics. (I know that’s a bad word, not to be used today, but in some cases I can’t think of a better one.)
I wrote a couple of posts a while back, reviewing and interacting with the writings of Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, leaders in the emerging/emergent church movement. Though I disagreed strongly with their writings, looking back I feel that I was a bit naïve. I simply interacted with the articles using what seemed to me to be logical exegetical arguments. I did not question their motives.
But having found out a bit more about these men, I believe that they need to be pointed out as purveyors of doctrines that deny the foundation of biblical Christianity; they are not simply misinformed or poor exegetes.
Recently a friend forwarded to me some further information on McLaren and Bell, along with an article by McLaren entitled, A Reading of John 14:6, dated 2007 (brianmclaren.net). McLaren is not simply an author and preacher in the emerging/ emergent church movement; he is a board member and instructor at Mars Hills Graduate School in Seattle, now known as the Seattle School of Theology, a bastion of emerging/emergent theology.
I had originally planned to go through the article, dealing with what at first appeared to me to be faulty exegesis, but as I read, re-read and re-re-read, I kept finding myself more and more befuddled by McLaren’s spin. The article is a bizarre mix of faulty exegesis, faulty logic and worst of all, faulty theology. Dare I call it just plain heresy? Dare I question the author’s motives? Anyway the following thoughts aren’t meant to be a point-by-point discussion of the article, but they are an attempt at a rebuttal.
The text that the article is concerned with is John 14:6: “Jesus says to him (Thomas) ‘I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.”
This text has been understood by many – I would say most - readers as a clear statement by Jesus that He is the only way to God. And a clear corollary to this statement would be that there is no other way to God. Ah, but this is not the way it is to be understood, says McLaren!
“It is one of the questions I am asked most frequently, ‘Do you think Jesus is the only way?’ … The question raises another question, actually: ‘The only way to what?’” After this he goes on to tell us that there are many ways: Buddha, Mohammed, Marx, Freud, televangelists. Of course, each way ends up at a different destination. “But if you are asking about the Kingdom of God coming to earth ...,” then, of course, all these others “will step back and Jesus will step forward.”
McLaren is very clear that he doesn’t like the “idea called the ‘exclusivity of Christ.’” In order to refute this horrid doctrine, he chooses to rephrase it in his own words (the “straw man” argument). He can’t out and out say that Jesus is not the only way to God. He rather caricatures those who believe this “idea” as really being more concerned about Jesus being “the only way to avoid burning forever in hell …,” that the “idea” really means that “all who do not consciously and decisively accept Jesus as their personal savior will burn forever in hell.”
McLaren seems to have a fixation on the idea of eternal punishment which apparently is why he keeps introducing it here to convince us that this was not what Jesus was talking about in this passage. I agree Jesus wasn’t. He was talking about His being the only way to God!
McLaren keeps reiterating his straw man arguments. He brings up Thomas’ question in verse 5 and informs us that, “It’s clear he is not asking anything like ‘Will people who have never heard of you go to heaven?’” And then he goes on to inform us that Thomas was not thinking of all the other people of various religious persuasions. He tells us that Jesus’ words in John 14:6 “are not intended as an insult to the followers of Mohammed, the Buddha,” etc.
It’s apparent that McLaren’s main concern is that if we believe that Jesus’ claims are exclusive, if Jesus really is the only way, then others will be shut out. He wants us to believe in an inclusive Jesus, a nice guy Jesus, who accepts any and everybody (excepting, I suppose, those narrow-minded bigots who believe that Jesus really IS the only way to God).
A few words about McLaren’s argument, which I believe are characteristic of much of the emerging/emergent movement:
· It is arrogant, even Gnostic. Though inclusivity is almost a mantra, it is itself exclusive. He holds himself and his knowledgeable associates above those who are “…perfectly in synch with the general cluelessness of the disciples.”
· It is dogmatic while trying to sound anything but. This I believe is symptomatic of the soft view of truth associated with the postmodern thinking of many in the emerging/emergent movement. His qualifiers: “It’s far more likely …,” “… which seems to suggest …” “It’s as if …” may sound like he is trying to avoid dogmatism, but they hide his real dogmatic agenda.
· Even if his “exegesis” of John 14:6 were correct (it’s not) and Jesus was not claiming exclusivity here, McLaren would still have to contend with the vast number of claims Jesus made elsewhere. There are other “I Am’s” in John’s gospel. Is McLaren capable of explaining away the apparent exclusivity in all of these?
· Similarly McLaren’s fierce opposition to those who speak about hell seems to run into the problem that Jesus spoke frequently about hell – in fact, more than all other New Testament writers combined.
· McLaren stands opposed to 2,000 years of biblical understanding. Though this does not necessarily mean he is wrong, it would seem that this would at least temper his arrogance.
McLaren’s contradictory footnote, though it sounds pious, shows what his real theology is: “By the way, it would also make me want to scream if you misread what I’m saying to mean, ‘It doesn’t matter what you believe. Anything goes. God doesn’t care.’ That would be equally ridiculous! By looking at what Jesus cares about, we see what God cares about, including what makes God angry: carelessness towards the poor and vulnerable, putting religious rules over relationships, complacency, a lack of compassion, and so much more.”
He has been spending page after page attempting to convince us that it really doesn’t matter what you believe about the person of Jesus, except that He is not the only way to God. It’s “what God cares about,” the ethics of Jesus, not His claims to exclusivity, that are important.
If we buy into McLaren’s argument, we are left with a Jesus who is not the only way to God, but simply a great moral teacher.
I have to give McLaren and his associates credit. He has found a neat way to avoid the exclusive claims of Christ. He has no need to do as Thomas Jefferson and many others have done, just rip all of Christ’s claims out of the Bible. He has no need to see Jesus as a good but deluded man. He can instead, by exegetical legerdemain demonstrate that Jesus’ claims weren’t actually claims to exclusivity at all!
“The one who believes in the Son has eternal life, but the one who doesn’t believe in the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath abides on him” (John 3:36). I wonder what McLaren does with this verse.