This blog series is considering seven lessons that evangelicals can learn from Brian McLaren, who has been unofficially excommunicated from the evangelical community (see "Evangelicals and Hannibal Lecter"). The first lesson focused on relational fidelity in the midst of our differences. The second lesson focused on the need to employ multiple intelligences in our quest to present a holistic Christian apologetic. Today, we will consider the third lesson, namely, the role of moral intelligence when interpreting and applying Scripture in our current cultural setting.
Brian McLaren has long argued that the most lethal contemporary threat to the evangelical Christian faith can be found within its own ranks. In particular, McLaren believes distorted expressions of evangelical Christianity, which promote beliefs and practices such as divine determinism, exclusive privilege, "redemptive" violence, and the support of political candidates that embody these morally deficient qualities, pose a more menacing challenge to the gospel message in our current world than any external, non-Christian foe.
To counteract this threat, McLaren has dedicated a good deal of energy during the past two decades to challenging morally deficient expressions of evangelical Christianity (For his most recent prophetic treatise, see The Great Spiritual Migration.). While some have accused McLaren of bending biblical teaching to the moral tastes of postmodern culture, a careful assessment of McLaren's work reveals a more noble motivation, namely, a steadfast commitment to the character of God, manifested most clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus.
In The Last Word and the Word After That, McLaren writes: "I believe that God is good. No thought I have ever had of God is better than God actually is. True, my thoughts—including my assumptions about what good means—are always more or less inaccurate, limited, and unworthy, but still I am confident of this: I have never overestimated how good God is because God's goodness overflows far beyond the limits of human understanding." Likewise, in A New Kind of Christianity, McLaren reinforced his commitment to the goodness of God by insisting, "Good has the first word, and good has the last."
In my new book, Brian McLaren in Focus: A New Kind of Apologetics, I argue that the goodness of God (most clearly expressed in the person and ministry of Jesus) is the central motif of McLaren's entire ministry. His deconstructive/reconstructive project is fundamentally about replacing a "right faith," that centers on a truncated conception of "orthodoxy," with a holistic, morally appealing faith that embraces orthodoxy as a means to an end, rather than as the ultimate purpose of the Christian life. In other words, right thinking (orthodoxy) is worthless unless it leads to good being (orthopathy), good relating (ortho-affinity) and good practice (orthopraxy) in the world.
This core commitment to the goodness of God is nothing new to Evangelicalism. In fact, it has been prominently featured in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. While some Calvinists reduce Arminianism to an idolatrous obsession with human freedom, the real emphasis in Arminian theology is the goodness of God. Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall, authors of Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, point out that "the goodness of God is a theological non-negotiable for Arminius; he is deeply convinced that the loss of a proper vision of God's goodness leads straight to heresy."
John Wesley also left no doubt about his unbridled confidence in the goodness of God when he wrote the following in "Predestination Calmly Considered": "But do they not agree least of all with the scriptural account of [God's] love and goodness? That attribute which God peculiarly claims, wherein he glories above all the rest. It is not written, 'God is justice,' or 'God is truth:' (Although he is just and true in all his ways.) But it is written, 'God is love,' love in the abstract without bounds; and 'there is no end of his goodness.'"
Now, this final sentence from Wesley sounds very much like one of the above quotations from McLaren. Wesley writes, "...'God is love,' love in the abstract without bounds; and 'there is no end of his goodness.' Compare with McLaren's words, "God's goodness overflows far beyond the limits of human understanding." With both Wesley and McLaren there is a powerful and poignant confidence that the goodness of God is "without bounds" and "beyond limits."
Yet there is another equally important and interesting point of intersection between Wesley and McLaren. Not only do Wesley and McLaren both affirm the ultimate goodness of God, but they also both believe that humans possess (as part of the imago dei) the faculty of moral intuition, which allows us to grasp moral truth in a way that is consistent with the divine perspective. While God's ways are higher than our ways, God's ways are not entirely contrary to our moral sensibilities.
Jerry Walls, scholar in residence and professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University, claims that this approach to moral intuition is the route taken in the Arminian hermeneutical tradition. In an article entitled, "Divine Commands, Predestination, and Moral Intuition," Walls argues that Arminianism affirms a basic continuity between divine and human moral categories. Human moral intuition was fashioned by a loving and good God to function faithfully within a God-given environment designed for human flourishing. Sin and finitude can skew the faithful deliverances of moral intuition (as it can all human faculties); however, with appropriate care and openness to scriptural guidance and correction, there is good reason to believe that humans possess "a basically sound grasp of God's love and justice."
On the other hand, five-point Calvinism (the stream of Evangelicalism that McLaren finds especially morally repugnant) rejects this essential continuity between God's moral categories and human intuition. In other words, because of the effects of the Fall, there is a radical disconnect between God's morality and human moral intuition. Consequently, the human faculty of moral intuition is a questionable guide (according to the Calvinist position), and as Walls puts it, "the deliverances of the Christian faith may be sharply at odds with even our clearest moral judgments."
Consider, for instance, the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election (that some people are created for the purpose of eternal damnation). This doctrine struck Wesley as "worse than the devil; more false, more cruel, and more unjust." In fact, the doctrine of unconditional reprobation, which Wesley argued was the logical entailment of unconditional election, was so repulsive and offensive to his fundamental moral sense of justice and love that he was willing to declare certain controverted scriptural passages nonsense rather than "to say it had such a sense as this." In other words, the concept of God's universal love toward all people "was as certain as anything [Wesley] believed" and any interpretation of Scripture to the contrary must be mistaken.
On the other hand, Calvin (and Luther) embraced both unconditional election and unconditional reprobation. Walls argues that Calvin and Luther were committed to a rather extreme form of divine-command ethics; therefore, "God's will is the standard for right, so whatever He wills is right by definition." Consequently, according to this line of reasoning, if the Bible teaches the unconditional eternal damnation of the non-elect for the glory of God, this doctrine should be accepted regardless of how our moral intuitions react to such a proposal.
In the above passage, Blount likens McLaren's abhorrence of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and unconditional reprobation to an arbitrary personal "taste," such as one's preference for Pepsi over Coke or coffee to tea. This clearly is categorical confusion on Blount's part. Surely, preferring the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount to the divinely commanded slaughter of women and children is hardly a matter of arbitrary personal "taste." In fact, such a preference for Christ's teachings over Old Testament brutality, as well as radical inclusion over ethnic exclusion should be considered profoundly Christian rather than accommodation to cultural "taste."
In A New Kind of Christianity, McLaren anticipated the kind of critique offered by Blount: "We pursue this new approach to the Bible not out of capitulation to 'moral relativism,' as some critics will no doubt accuse, but because of a passion for the biblical values of goodness and justice. Our goal is not to lower our moral standards, but rather raise them by facing and repenting of habits of mind and heart that harmed human beings and dishonored God in the past."
While McLaren calls this a "new approach to the Bible," some of us recognize a good deal of resonance with the Wesleyan-Arminian hermeneutic that has enjoyed an esteemed tradition in the history of Evangelicalism. It is a hermeneutic that honors progressive revelation and insists upon using a Christocentric lens. It is also a hermeneutic that relies upon our most certain God-given moral intuitions to safeguard against interpretations that undermine the character of God. In short, it is a morally intelligent hermeneutic.
In summary, I believe it is high time for evangelicals to carefully reflect upon their biblical hermeneutic and consider the importance of responsibly interpreting and applying Scripture in ways that honor both the character of God (most clearly revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus) and our most certain moral intuitions. So the third lesson that evangelicals can learn from Brian McLaren relates to the importance of moral intelligence when reading and applying the Bible. At a time when evangelicals are increasingly viewed as strident, exclusive and mean-spirited, this is a lesson we cannot afford to ignore.
In a few days, we will turn to the fourth lesson evangelicals can learn from Brian McLaren, namely, the importance of living out the heart of God, which centers on radical inclusion. Stay tuned.
* For an in-depth assessment of McLaren's theology in light of orthodox Wesleyan-Arminian teaching, see chapter 7 (McLaren and Arminian Affinity) and chapter 8 (McLaren and Arminian Dissonance) in my new book, Brian McLaren in Focus.