The New Evangelical Left (XXI)
Progressive and Contemporary: Getting to the Heart of the Matter
Typically, when we hear the word “progressive” we tend to conjure up images of things moving forward and getting better. We think of someone who is “forward looking” and knows far better than his forebears how things ought to be. Granted, “progressive” and “contemporary” are not synonymous terms, but there are some connections between the two. I also concede that “progressive” is a word that is most frequently employed in political circles, while “contemporary” is usually reserved for culture. In our ecclesiastical gatherings, we like to lean towards “cutting edge” to define that we are hip and with it.
Engaging the culture and being cutting edge presents a rather stark contrast to being traditional, which these days carries with it the connotation of “dinosaur-esque,” “stodgy,” “staid,” or “hung-up-in-the-past-with-all-the-dead-guys.” In other words, you’re still using the theological buggy whip instead of driving a Prius, but at least your gas pedal doesn’t stick and your brakes generally work. If you’re a traditionalist, you revere Calvin, Bullinger, Luther, the Puritans, and, of course, Herman Bavinck, and eschew newbies like Brian McLaren, who, by the way, has a new book out. It’s time for true confessions: I probably won’t buy or read A New Kind of Christianity, because even though the title trumpets something new and different, it will be the same old warmed over Social Gospel gruel like McLaren’s other books. One of my reliable sources—I have people—said that reading McLaren’s book would turn your stomach and I definitely don’t want that.
My source at the Pentagon also said the following: “He denies The Fall, Original sin and any concept of total depravity and boldly declares that he would rather be an atheist than believe in a God that involved those concepts.” In addition, McLaren has questioned the historicity of Genesis 1-3, so denying the Fall, Original Sin, and total depravity naturally fall into place. Some dare call this the “domino theory.” People still scream that this is not the domino theory and you simply have to take each of the emergent tribe, well, individually. I have been yelling loudly for at least half a decade that McLaren is a big problem ecclesiastically and theologically. Mr. McLaren might just be what he says he’d rather be: an atheist. Without trying to be a minimalist, I do believe it’s prudent and proper to ask what the irreducible minimum is for still being a Christian.
I know some will be thinking, “There goes Ron just being mean and mean-spirited again!” Maybe, but then again, maybe not and let me tell you why. A denial of the Fall and Original Sin must carry with it, logically, a denial of the need for a doctrine of the Atonement, which McLaren and the emergent tribe (with its groupies) have emasculated. How? They have dispensed with the biblical doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement. No Fall; no sin; no radical corruption; and no atonement. I got it! McLaren has been reading Finney! McLaren is a Pelagian, but who didn’t recognize that from the outset? McLaren has been shouting his defiance at Christianity ever since “Neo” made his appearance followed closely by A Generous Orthodoxy. For those willing to read and to see, the program was available for all to view. Oh, there were some surreptitious items that you either had to dig deep or be astute to see, but they were there.
To confuse matters worse, there has been a cadre of those who call themselves Presbyterian or Reformed who encourage us to cull out “what is good and true” from McLaren’s and the emergent tribe’s works. Predominantly, we’re told that the Emergent church movement was much-needed to militate against the crass consumerism of the mega-church movement. Young people were desperately seeking community that was clearly and blatantly missing in the rampant impersonal nature of the mega-church, with its accompanying problems of horrible theology, crass entertainment, crowded parking lots, and long lines at the on-campus Starbucks.
All that being said, I totally disagree that the Emergent church movement served a much-needed change and still serves that need. The Emergent church movement was wrong from the get-go, because it was not biblically based and McLaren was at the forefront of the charge. To defend McLaren as “a nice guy” or “sincere” is trite, trivial, and totally missing the point. Moreover, what the Emergent church movement provided was not a biblical alternative to “doing church.” In point of fact, the proponent and non-leader leaders of the Emergent church movement denuded that movement of any meaningful theology and simply promoted a different type of “feel good” experience. Consumerism did not disappear off the radar it was simply placed in shrink wrap.
What was needed, since the mega-church missed the boat? The Old Testament British scholar, Christopher J.H. Wright, gives us an inkling to the solution in his book Walking in the Ways of the Lord. Even though he is not one of the “dead guys,” Wright is still audacious enough to believe in creation as Scripture describes it, a literal Adam and Eve, their Fall into sin, the penal substitutionary atonement of the Lord Jesus, and his literal return. He is also so narrow-minded that he believes that only those are saved who have faith in Jesus Christ as the only possible way of salvation. No progressive that Wright! And, he even went to seminary and is glad that he did. In other words, he sees parsing Greek and Hebrew words as productive and not something to be scoffed at. My man at the Pentagon—DeepThroat—tells me that old Bri cannot resist taking another shot at people who go to seminary.
So what benefit was seminary for Wright? (He’s otherwise known as “The Other Wright.”) He informs us that because of the reality of Jesus Christ’s Person and Work, “we are not struggling to achieve victory but to apply a victory already won.” Why, it sounds as if Wright believes that Jesus was the remedy for the Fall; for real sin. He adds, “The Christian gospel presents us with an accomplished victory over the effects of the fall in every dimension of our lives—spiritual, intellectual, physical and social, as well in the cosmic realm.” My tradition teaches me, following the truth of Scripture, that God executes his decrees in creation and providence. Wright—the right Wright—adds that “Creation provides our basic values and principles.” In addition, “The fall keeps us earthed in the reality of human stubbornness and a world under curse, preserving us from crippling disillusionment when things go wrong as they always do.” Therefore, creation and fall provide us with a reasonable, cogent, and coherent ethics. How does that occur practically? Wright states, “The history, law and traditions of Old Testament Israel show us how God sought to work out his moral will in a specific historical and cultural context and provide us with a wide variety of actual responses to social, political and economic circumstances within the framework of theological assessment and critique. The incarnation bring God right alongside us in our struggle, especially with the knowledge of the presence of the kingdom of God in the world.”
This last quotation is the precise opposite of what both McLaren and Jim Wallis do in their “ethics” books. Yet, they continue to spew out their drivel and still some in the Presbyterian and Reformed camps want to tell us and their congregations what wonderful people they are. I have little doubt that Charles Finney was a nice person—even though he was a lawyer. But Finney, McLaren, and Wallis are dangerous theologically. What ever happened to Ezekiel 33:1-9? Continuing to praise these men—and those like them—is tantamount to throwing the sheep under the bus.
Where were we? Oh, yeah, I remember now: why the Emergent church movement and its emphasis on community is wrong. Well, Wright—the right Wright—comes to our aid once again. In terms of the Kingdom of God, we are not to assume that every “sincere” person on the planet is included. God’s plan is different from dual citizenship. You cannot be a Buddhist-Christian, a Hindu-Christian, or a Muslim-Christian. You could have been raised in any of those religions and jettisoned them at some point for the true faith: Christianity. Westerners need to undergo a kind of re-orientation if we are to see things from a biblical perspective. What is needed? Well, “We tend to being at the personal level and work outwards. We think of ethics as the means to the goal of a good and happy life. So our emphasis is to persuade people to live a certain kind of life according to this and that moral standard. If enough individuals live up to such a morality, then, almost as a by-product, society itself will be improved, or at least maintained as a safe environment for individuals to pursue their personal goodness. This is the kind of person you must be; that kind of society will result as a bonus.” McLaren, Wallis, and the groupies want to improve society; to be “progressives,” all the while ignoring pertinent, indispensable truths of the Word of God.
Wright’s solution continues, “However, the Bible tends to place the emphasis the other way round: here is the kind of society that God wants. His desire is for a holy people, a redeemed community living under his kingship according to his standards, a model society in whom he can display, as far as is possible in a fallen world, a prototype of the new humanity of his ultimate redemptive purpose. Now, then, if that is the kind of society God wants, what kind of person must you be to be worthy of your inclusion within it, and what must be your contribution to the furthering of these overall social objectives?” Good question. What kind should you and I be? What both the mega-church and the Emergent church movement failed and failed miserably to understand is that “biblical ethics are covenantal.” What does that mean specifically? At a minimum it entails the truth that “personal ethics are ‘community shaped’, and the ethic of the redeemed community is that of a ‘priesthood’—for the sake of the rest of society. It is the nature of the community God seeks which governs the kind of person he approves.”
Community? Yes, community is important and spoken of often in Scripture. But it’s not the kind of “community” that the mega-church presents, which is almost virtually non-community, nor is it the flippant, frivolous, relativistic Emergent church movement stuff that passes for Church. Both the mega-church and the Emergent church got it wrong—badly. I said from the outset when I first started writing about both movements, what is most needed are biblical Christians. What continues to be needed are Christians who take the whole counsel of God seriously. As stodgy as my Presbyterian tradition is, here is what it says about how the Word of God is to be read (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 157): “The Holy Scriptures are to be read with a high and reverent esteem of them; with a firm persuasion that they are the very Word of God, and that he only can enable us to understand them; with desire to know, believe, and obey the will of God revealed in them; with diligence, and attention to the matter and scope of them; with meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer.” Of course, the divines are dead, but I’m just sayin’.Whether the subject is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Fall, Original Sin, the Atonement, or anything else Christians must derive their doctrine and their ethics from the Word of God. It’s time to grow up and mature spiritually folks. It is time to put childish and immature ways behind us, to become once again truly and deeply concerned about mortifying sin, to become students of God’s truth, and to realize what the Kingdom of God really is. One parting shot: I cannot force Warren, Hybels, McLaren, Mouw, or any of the other signatories on that ludicrous, insipid, stupid, and false IPCC resolution to remove their names. They should, but they will not. It’s a pride thing; it’s an arrogance thing. While I cannot coerce them to do the right thing, I would like to appeal to my fellow-colleagues to stop putting their arms around them—figuratively—and embracing them to the detriment of God’s people. If you want to embrace people like McLaren, please keep it to yourself and don’t encourage God’s people to read them or trick them into thinking McLaren is “okay.” He is not.
 Christopher J.H. Wright, Walking in the Ways of the Lord, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995).
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 21.
 Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007); Jim Wallis, God’s Politics, (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 2005).
 Wright, Walking, 24.
 Ibid., 24-25.
 Ibid., 25.
Labels: Modern Christianity