Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Machen and Mclaren on gospels old and new

Yesterday Tim Challies posted some commentary and analysis on a chapter from Brian McLaren's forthcoming book Everything Must Change. It is well worth a read, so if you haven't seen you can find it here. According to Tim the chapter is a study of contrasts between the gospel as misunderstood by Protestant theology, or the "conventional view," and as understood and set forth by McLaren.

As you would expect this comparison places each view in sharp relief and invites mutual critique. Before doing this it is worth asking to what extent either view has been accurately described, and also whether the two views are totally antithetical at every point. Or, in other words, are we being presented with false alternatives? Must the affirmation of one view also entail the total denial of the other view? McLaren is not known for fair descriptions of the theological views that he rejects.

The "conventional view," as outlined in the post, is somewhat caricatured by its otherworldliness and overweening individualism. The other view on offer is kingdom focussed and world transforming right now. The upshot is that, according to McLaren, “Jesus in the conventional view has little or nothing to say regarding the world’s global crises.”

McLaren's summary of the message of Jesus appears strong on the appeal to change our view of the world and to follow him, but short on an explanation of a gracious act of God in Christ to redeem lost sinners who would otherwise be inescapably lost. This is Jesus the Prophet, maybe even Jesus the King, but not really Jesus the Priest.

But perhaps, more pointedly, his alternative gospel is itself thoroughly individualistic. It is after all still a message transmitted by teaching and example that individuals must embrace for themselves if they are to benefit from it. The major difference, and what a difference it is, concerns the content of the message addressed to individuals and the impact that it makes. And at this point what is needed appears to be a change of heart, of perspective, of direction on our part; what is not needed is a change of status before God that the cross of Christ alone could achieve.

The two gospels differ radically in their assessment of the need of individuals and their standing before God. The old gospel called men to repent and believe, to willingly submit to Jesus as Lord, to live for his glory now and for eternity. It promised a new heart, and a new birth. But the old gospel also brought men and women face to face with their need to be right before God, and pointed exlusively to the Lord who died in the place of sinners and rose from the grave.

The implied contrast between these old and new gospels reminded me of some words penned by Gresham Machen in the 1920s. They give weight to the concern that McLaren's theology bears more than a passing resemblance to the old liberal gospel:
But if Christianity be directed toward another world, if it be a way by which individuals can escape from the present evil age to some better country, what becomes of "the social gospel"?

At this point is detected one of the most obvious lines of cleavage between Christianity and the liberal Church. The older evangelism, says the modern liberal preacher, sought to rescue individuals, while the newer evangelism seeks to transform the whole organism of society: the older evangelism was individual; the newer evangelism is social.

This formulation of the issue is not entirely correct, but it contains an element of truth...It rejects altogether any means of salvation which deals with men in a mass; it brings the individual face to face with his God. In that sense, it is true that Christianity is individualistic and not social.

But although Christianity is individualistic, it is not only individualistic. It provides fully for the social needs of man.

...the Christian man believes 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.

Thus there is an enormous difference between the modern liberal and the Christian man with reference to human institutions like the community and the state, and with reference to human efforts at applying the Golden Rule in industrial relationships.

The modern liberal believes that human nature as at present constituted can be molded by the principles of Jesus; the Christian man believes that evil can only be held in check and not destroyed by human institutions, and that there must be a transformation of human materials before any new building can be produced.
Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism, p. 152, 154-6

1 comment:

Nomosian said...

Hi Martin - you might like to know that Machen's work from the quote above is available free in audio at

God bless!