Saturday, November 03, 2007

More than coincidence: Machen and McLaren on Jesus and the gospel

There are several reviews and discussions of Brian McLaren's latest book Everything Must Change available around the blogosphere. Several have picked up on the contrast that McLaren draws between what he calls the "conventional view" of the gospel and the "emerging view." I won't rehash the substance of that section here. Lee Irons has a helpful post on this. Whilst McLaren's presentation of this conventional view appears to me to be a badly drawn cartoon image of orthodoxy, his sketch of the emerging view omits lines laid down by centuries of confessing the faith.

McLaren, in marking this contrast between conventional and emerging gospels, freely uses language that was part of the theological debates and controversies of the early twentieth century. The following extract bears this out (the italics are original):
Personally, I am convinced that Jesus' good news was and is better news than we have been led to believe by the conventional view. In spite of the stress and anxiety associated with calls for radical rethinking and, where necessary, radical reformation, I believe we need to face the real possibility that the conventional view has in many ways been domesticated, watered down, and co-opted by the dominant framing story of our modern Western culture and, as a result, has become "a gospel about Jesus" but not "the gospel of Jesus." (p. 83)
Earlier in the book he writes of the need to center our lives on the "essential message of Jesus" which is "not just a message about Jesus that focussed on the afterlife, but rather the core message of Jesus that focussed on personal, social, and global transformation in this life" (p. 22). Truth be told the book is very short on saying much about Jesus and his death in redemptive terms and strong on saying much about Jesus' words and message. It should also be noted that both "eternal life" and hell are consistently interpreted and presented in terms of this life and consequences of our choices in this world.

The similarity between this "emerging view" and an earlier version associated with Protestant liberalism is evident in more than the obvious verbal connection between "the gospel about Jesus" of historic Christianity and the "gospel of Jesus" of modernist theology. It is a similarity of content also. Machen emphasised this point in my grandparents day:
Modern unbelievers are in the habit of telling us that we ought not be very much interested in the gospel about Jesus but ought instead to devote our attention to the gospel of Jesus.

They say, we are no longer interested in that gospel about Jesus. Instead we are interested in the gospel that he himself actually preached. We are interested in the way of living in which he walked and in which he called on his followers to walk. We are interested, in other words, not in a gospel that sets Jesus forth, but in the gospel that he set forth, the gospel that he preached when he walked by the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

If, then, you ask the people who talk in this fashion what the gospel of Jesus, which they cherish in place of the gospel about Jesus, actually was they will usually tell you, with more or less clearness, that it was a simple proclamation of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, or a simple proclamation of a kingdom of God that is essentially just the realisation of a high social ideal. Let us stop disputing about the meaning of the cross of Christ, they say; let us stop disputing about any other doctrinal questions; and instead, let us just get up and obey Jesus' commands. That will honour Jesus more, they say, than all the theories of the atonement that have ever been proposed.

People who talk in this fashion seem to think that they are somehow glorifying Jesus more and are somehow getting closer to him than was done by the people who used to proclaim the old gospel.
J. Gresham Machen, God Transcendent, p. 169-70