Monday, March 29, 2010

Brian McLaren's Authority Question

I am blogging through A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. McLaren is noted for his dissatisfaction with evangelicalism, and his new book raises “ten questions that are transforming the faith.” He writes, “It’s time for a new quest, launched by new questions, a quest across denominations and around the world, a quest for new ways to believe and new ways to serve faithfully in the way of Jesus, a quest for a new kind of Christian faith.” In the second chapter, he insists that he is not offering answers to these questions, but responses that invite counter-responses. Let the conversation begin! I will offer summaries of each question and response, along with my counter-responses.

McLaren’s second question is the authority question: How should the Bible be understood? McLaren argues that the Bible has traditionally been treated as a constitution—a consistent and easily understood set of rules and regulations—but should rather be understood as a library—a collection of community-relevant documents that inform, but do not end, conversation.

In chapter seven, McLaren claims that we are in drastic need of a new way of reading the Bible. First, the current paradigm produces a truth problem—the church consistently finds itself on the wrong side of scientific investigation. Second, the current paradigm produces an ethics problem—the church finds itself unable to answer the pressing ethical questions of the day. Finally, the current paradigm produces a peace problem—preachers use the text to promote violence. The clearest example of the dominant hermeneutic’s shortcomings was the American church’s inane defense of slavery in the South, similar arguments for which are currently used to support other unethical social positions. (Hermeneutics is “the art and science of biblical interpretation,” and someone’s hermeneutic is their system for reading and interpreting the Bible. Some with a literal hermeneutic reads the Bible literally. Someone with an allegorical hermeneutic reads the Bible allegorically. Some with a redemptive-historical hermeneutic reads the Bible looking at how each passage relates to God’s redemptive history. There are as many hermeneutics as there are theologians.)

In chapter eight, contrasts a Bible-as-constitution hermeneutic with a Bible-as-library hermeneutic. In the former, the Bible is a collection of internally consistent, authoritative declaration about all things pertaining to life. For each of life’s questions there is a definitive verse that ends discussion. In the latter, the Bible is a collection of thoughts about God and life from different perspectives, none of which is intended to be absolute. While the Bible has a “unique” and “unparalleled” role in the conversation, it is not the only voice. Instead, it “preserves, presents, and inspires an ongoing vigorous conversation with and about God, a living and vital civil argument into which we are all invited and through which God is revealed.” (83)

In chapter nine, McLaren presents the Book of Job as a hermeneutic paradigm. The story opens with a contest between Job and the Satan to see whether Job only worships God because of the good it brings him and his family. Although Job has done nothing wrong, God allows the Satan to plague him to test the basis of his allegiance. Neither Job nor his friends have any idea about the cosmic wager, and Job’s friends are quick to offer inaccurate platitudes about blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience, all of which come from the theology of Deuteronomy. Job rightly rejects his friends’ instructions, and when God finally speaks he takes Job’s side.

McLaren raises some stimulating hermeneutical questions related to Job. First, the character “God” rejects the theology of Job’s friends, but this theology comes from Deuteronomy. What do we do with this tension? Second, do we assume that the character “God” represents the thoughts of the real God? Perhaps “God’s” opinions are merely the opinions of the author, preserved in the biblical text to be debated and engaged with.

At this point, some readers may object to this idea, noting that Job is “inspired” by God. McLaren agrees that Job is “inspired,” but questions what this means. In the Bible-as-constitution paradigm, an inspired text means an accurate, conversation-stopping text. In McLaren’s Bible-as-library paradigm, an “inspired” text is a vital part of a community’s library that needs to be debated and engaged. Thus the story of Job needs to be a part of our conversation, even if we come to different conclusions than the author.

Although McLaren has much good to say in these chapters, he presents a false dichotomy. Rejection of McLaren’s hermeneutic does not mean endorsement of human slavery, or approval of those who use the Bible to endorse other, similar social positions. There are as many approaches to reading the Bible as there are people who read it. While I agree with McLaren in some of his criticisms, I am reluctant to accept his hermeneutical suggestions.

McLaren rightly calls this section “the authority question,” because at the heart of his critique of the dominant hermeneutic are the questions, Does the Bible have special authority? And, if so, Why? Before we can answer these questions, we have to answer the more foundational questions, What is the Bible? and How did we get the Bible? Once we establish what the Bible is, we can discuss its authority.

The Bible is not one book, but a collection of smaller books. (As I discuss the formation of the Bible, I am going to limit my comments to the formation of the New Testament, because that’s where I have a broader knowledge-base. The formation of the Old Testament was similar, but also unique.) There are twenty-seven books in the New Testament—the four Gospels, The Book of Acts, thirteen letters written by the Apostle Paul, seven other letters written by others, one anonymous homily (The Book of Hebrews), and one apocalyptic vision, recorded and sent as a letter to seven churches in Asia Minor (The Book of Revelation).

These books of the New Testament varied in structure, genre, and intent, but they circulated quickly within in the early church. Matthew, Mark, and Luke evidence dependence upon each other, convincing many scholars that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke combined Mark’s Gospel with other Jesus tradition to create their own Gospels. Colossians 4:16 instructs the readers to pass the letter on to the Laodiceans and to read that letter originally written to them. In 2 Peter 3:15, the author expresses familiarity with the writings of Paul. So, early on, the church saw the writings of the New Testament to be relevant to, if not authoritative upon, the teaching and ministry of their local congregations. As time went on, churches in the major metropolitan areas gained access to more and more of these writings, along with other letters and stories written by Christian authors.

The second and third centuries brought new and definitive challenges to the church—the rise of Gnosticism and other new ideas. The Gnostics combined Christian theology with Greek dualism to create their own hybrid system of belief. Much of it sounded Christian, but Gnostic thought demanded that their theologians deny either the full humanity of Jesus or the deity of the God of the Old Testament. They cut and pasted passages that they liked and disliked from the Old Testament and the forming New Testament, and they added books of their own that supported Gnostic theology (i.e. The Gospel of Thomas). The rise of Gnosticism, Arianism, and other new ideas led the church to discuss things like canon (which books are authoritative), orthodoxy (which teachings are faithful to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles), and heresy (which teachings are incompatible with the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles). It is in this context that the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were “canonized” in the early fourth century. It is also in this context that the ancient creeds were written and ideas like Gnosticism, Arianism, etc. were condemned as heresy, i.e a departure from the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles.

So, what is the New Testament? At one level, the New Testament is a collection of letters, sermons, and stories, written by the first generation of Christians, that best represent the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Atheist historians even admit to that much. But people of faith see something else going on at another level. While the Holy Spirit is active in the life of all believers, we recognize that something special was going on in the ministries of Jesus and the Apostles. In fact, we would even say that the Spirit was so present in their ministries that the words that they have left behind contain the Word of God.

But, even if the Bible is the Word of God, it is the Word of God packaged in the words of people. When God speaks through the Scriptures, he does so through the personalities of those writing and reading. For instance, consider the following two passages, both commentaries on the Genesis account of Abraham’s justification:

“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1–5 ESV)
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’- and he was called a friend of God.” (James 2:21–24 ESV)
It’s interesting that Paul and James use the same verse, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness,” to prove opposite things. Paul writes, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28), and James writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).

How do we reconcile this blatant contradiction in Scripture? The only solution is to recognize that Paul and James mean something completely different by the terms “justified” and “works.” Paul is dealing with the question of whether someone has to be Jewish to be Christian, and he concludes, “No. A person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” James is dealing with the question of whether or not someone can have faith if they don’t care for the poor and downtrodden, and he concludes, “No. A person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” While the Bible is a divine book, it is also a human book, full of nuance from the human authors.

Now, McLaren would probably agree with everything I have written to this point. He believes that the Bible is the Word of God. He believes that it was written by human beings by the power of the Spirit. Where we disagree is in the nature of this relationship and the implications for the authority of the Scriptures.

I recognize a human element in the creation of the Bible. Just as Jesus was both God and man, I think the Bible is both the words of men and the Word of God. We need to use every historical, grammatical, and theological tool in our toolbox to best discern the message of the human author of the Bible, because it is only in understanding that message that we can understand the divine message. To propose wooden literalism as the only alternative to his hermeneutic is misleading by McLaren. There is a middle ground that accounts for the language, culture, and genre of the Bible that doesn’t reduce it to one voice among many in the development of theology.

So, what of McLaren’s hermeneutic? McLaren inappropriately elevates the novel over the ancient. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Democracy means that no voice is excluded on the accidence of his birth. Tradition means that no voice is excluded on the accidence of his death.” Christianity is a communal faith, and when we read the Bible we are communing with those who have gone before. Their voices are important and they deserve to be considered.

Further, while McLaren can point to a few examples of bad theology stemming from a wooden hermeneutic, he doesn't show how his hermeneutic can prevent similar bad theology. When we allow the spirit of the age to control the conversation, we are vulnerable to the prejudices and evils of that age.

When you read the words of Jesus, he doesn’t enter the conversation as a dialog partner, but as our Lord. To treat him as less than Lord is to betray the heart of Christianity. The same can be said about the words of the Apostles—they spoke with authority as men with a unique gifting and calling. We reject their thoughts about God at our own peril.

Like I said, McLaren gets a lot right in this section. We can’t neglect the artistic elements of the Bible—much of it intends to raise questions or stir emotions, and not all of it can be read like a constitution or recipe. But it is unfair to characterize all of the Bible as a mere conversation starter. The message of the Bible represents to teachings of our fathers in the faith and the One that we worship as Lord and God. As Paul wrote about the authority behind one of his “judgments” (sticking his tongue firmly in his cheek), “Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (1 Cor 7:40, see 7:25)

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