McLaren calls his first question the narrative question: What is the overarching storyline of the Bible? He notes that traditionally, the narrative of the Bible has been interpreted as Creation-Fall-Redemption/Damnation. In other words, God created the world perfect, human beings “Fell” from grace through sinning, Jesus died on the cross, and one day He will return to resurrect the Christians to eternal life and condemn the unbelievers to eternal torment.
McLaren has two problems with this narrative. First, he finds it morally deplorable. In the traditional narrative, God starts with a perfect, pain-and-evil free world, but ends with a world in which a good portion of creation is suffering in Hell. He writes:
“Few of us acknowledge that this master narrative starts with one category of things—good and blessed—and then ends up with two categories of things: good and blessed at the top line and evil and tormented at the bottom. Might we dare ask if this story can be reduced to a manufacturing process—producing a finished product of blessed souls on the top line with a damned unfortunate by-product on the bottom line? Could this be the story of a sorting and shipping process, the purpose of which is to deliver souls into their appropriate eternal bin? Can we dare wonder, given an ending that has more evil and suffering than the beginning, if it would have been better for this story never to have begun?” (34–35)
Second, he argues that this narrative cannot be found in the Bible itself. Instead, it is the product of the church reading Greco-Roman philosophy back into a Hebraic document. When we read the words of Jesus, we read them through a modern lens. We don’t see Jesus as he actually was, but we see Jesus as interpreted by Paul as interpreted by Augustine as interpreted by Aquinas as interpreted by Luther as interpreted by Calvin as interpreted by Jerry Falwell. So much post-Jesus theology has influenced our thinking that we are unable to see Jesus as he actually was.
On the other hand, McLaren suggests we learn to see Jesus through a Hebraic lens. In other words, if we start the story with Adam, and then move to Abraham, then Moses, then David, then the prophets, then John the Baptist, and finally to Jesus, we can see how Jesus fit into the context of his day.
According to McLaren, the predominant view of the Bible’s narrative comes from reading Greco-Roman philosophy back into the text. Plato was the one who introduced the notion of a “perfect” creation and a fall into an imperfect reality, and the Greeks were the ones looking for “salvation” through a return to the perfect order. This, however, was not the mindset of the ancient Hebrews.
According to McLaren, the Hebrews began with a “good” (but not perfect) Creation. Humanity’s “Fall” wasn’t so much of a catastrophic fall from the ideal, but a gradual spiraling into more and more depravity, climaxing at the building of the Tower of Babel—representing humanity’s empire-building and oppressing tendencies. Genesis sets the stage for the most important book in the Bible, Exodus, which demonstrates God’s heart for the oppressed and His liberating work in freeing people from the tyranny of Empire. The second half of Exodus (the giving of the law) demonstrates God’s work in forming people through the overcoming of “the dominating powers of fear, greed, impatience, ingratitude, and so one” (58). The rest of the Old Testament is a repeat of this greatest chapter—God’s longing for a peaceful kingdom to be built on earth contrasted with humanity’s tendency to build oppressive empires.
There is much to applaud in this first section of McLaren’s book. He is right in emphasizing the need to understand Jesus within a Jewish context. A Jesus that cannot be situated within the realm of first century Judaism is most likely not the historical Jesus. There is also much right in his “return from exile” or “liberation” theology. The theme of God’s liberation of the oppressed echoes throughout the Scriptures, and Exodus is a key book in understanding the Bible’s overarching narrative.
However, I think that McLaren has made some critical errors in his reconstruction of the biblical narrative. First, he omits early Christian interpretations of the biblical narrative. Second, he fails to appreciate the influence of Greco-Roman thought on first century Judaism and on Jesus himself. Finally, he fails to show how his interpretation of Genesis and Exodus is actually the ancient interpretation of these books.
While McLaren rightly insists that Jesus be placed in his appropriate Jewish context, he forgets that he also needs to be placed in an appropriate Christian context. Historians studying Jesus are governed by two principles. First, Jesus needs to be fit into a first century Jewish context. Jesus was a Jew just like all of the other Jews of his day. He spoke the same language, had the same education, celebrated the same holidays, and thought of God the same way they did. But, Jesus also needs to be fit into the movement that bears his name. N.T. Wright is fond of saying about this principle, “Where there is smoke, there is probably fire.” In other words, unless it can be proven otherwise, the beliefs and practices of the early followers of Jesus probably go back to Jesus himself. So, McLaren’s glaring omission is: How did Paul understand the narrative of the Old Testament? Since the writings of Paul are the earliest Christian documents that we have, shouldn’t they be the starting point of analyzing Christian thought (or at least a very important piece of the puzzle)?
McLaren’ second error is in neglecting the importance of Greco-Roman thought on first century Judaism and on Jesus himself. After reading this first section of the book, you’d think that Plato had no influence in the world until the sixth century A.D. Not only did Platonism dominate Greco-Roman thought at the time of Jesus, but it also heavily influenced his contemporary Judaism. (The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has proven this beyond a shadow of a doubt.) So, if we are going to take McLaren’s advice and start with Adam, and then move to Abraham, Moses, David, etc., we have to place Plato somewhere between Isaiah and John the Baptist. While Christianity is a Hebraic religion, it is also a western religion.
McLaren’s third error is his failure to demonstrate that his re-reading of Genesis and Exodus is actually the ancient reading of those texts. Even if we grant that it is possible that Jesus read Genesis and Exodus the way that McLaren is suggesting, how do we know if it is likely that he read it that way? McLaren doesn’t give any examples of ancient writers reading the Bible according to his framework.
Do we have examples of ancient writers reading Genesis according to the traditional interpretation? Second Baruch is a Jewish document written at about the same time as the New Testament. The author writes:
“For, although Adam sinned first and has brought death upon all who were not in his own time, yet each of them who has been born from him has prepared for himself the coming torment. . . . Adam is, therefore, not the cause, except for himself, but each has become his own Adam.” (54:15, 19, A.F.J. Klijn translation)
The author continues:
“And as you first saw the black waters on the top of the cloud which first came down upon the earth; this is the transgression which Adam, the first man, committed. For when he transgressed, untimely death came into being, mourning was mentioned, affliction was prepared, illness was created, labor accomplished, pride began to come into existence, the realm of death began to ask to be renewed with blood, the conception of children came about, the passion of parents was produced, the loftiness of men was humiliated, and goodness vanished.” (56:5–6, A.F.J. Klijn translation)
While the writer of 2 Baruch insists that no one is condemned for the sin of Adam (but for his own sin), he also indicates that a curse was brought upon the earth through Adam’s sin so that sickness, death, and evil hearts infected all people.
Fourth Ezra is another Jewish work written around the time of the New Testament. The author writes:
“You did not take away from them their evil heart, so that you Law might bring forth fruit in them. For the first Adam, burdened with an evil heart, transgressed and was overcome, as were also all who were descended from him. Thus the disease became permanent; the law was in people’s heart along with the evil root, but what was good departed, and the evil remained.” (3:20–22, B.M Metzger translation)
The writer of 4 Ezra likewise noted that something happened within the heart of humanity when Adam sinned. Before, there were tendencies both toward good and evil, but after Adam the good departed and people were left with an evil root.
Finally (and most importantly), there is the Apostle Paul. Paul was a Pharisee and a contemporary of Jesus, although the two likely never met before Paul’s encounter with Him on the road to Damascus. Paul writes:
“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” (Romans 5:12–14 ESV)
Sin and death came into the world through one man, Adam.
Paul also note that all of creation suffers from the consequences of Adam’s sin and is awaiting its redemption. He writes:
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:18–23 ESV)
So, the narrative of Creation-Curse-Redemption was certainly around at the time of Jesus—it was not invented in the sixth century A.D. The same cannot be said for McLaren’s reconstruction.
Why is this important?
First, I want to reiterate that much of what McLaren says in this section is right. God is against oppression. God wants us to work for righteousness and peace in the here-and-now, and not just wait for Him to bring it in the sweet by-and-by. It’s not what McLaren affirms that I disagree with, it’s what he denies, namely that human beings are fallen creatures in need of redemption. And, for the record, he doesn’t mince words. About the two different interpretations of the biblical narrative, he writes:
“The wild, passionate, creative, liberating, hope-inspiring God whose image emerges in these three sacred narratives is not the dread cosmic dictator of the six-line Greco-Roman framework. No, that deity, we must conclude, is an idol, a damnable idol. Yes, that idol is popular, perhaps even predominant, and defended by many a well-meaning but misguided scholar and fire-breathing preacher. But in the end you cannot serve two masters, Theos [the traditional God] and Elohim [McLaren’s reconstruction], the god of the Greco-Roman philosophers and Caesars and the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the violent god of profit proclaimed by the empire and the compassionate God of justice proclaimed by the prophets.” (65)
Working for justice and peace is all well and good, but if the last 100 years has taught us anything it’s that it will never work, because there is something wrong with us. We are fallen, sinful creatures in need of redemption. If we reject that theology, we will fail in whatever sort of “kingdom-building” endeavor for which we set out.