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As we continue through Brian McLaren’s new book, A New Kind of Christianity, we now come to his third question that is “transforming the faith.” This question concerns the seeming contradiction between the God that we read about in the Old Testament (OT) and the Jesus that we find in the New Testament (NT). It is often pointed out (usually by skeptics) that the “OT god” seems to be terribly bloodthirsty and sadistic, seeking to subjugate His people under laws and rules that they could never keep, while the Jesus of the NT seems to be one of forgiveness and love, seeking to spread grace as liberally as the OT god spread vengeance. This antimony between the testaments often causes problems for many Christians—McLaren among them—and often results in Christians being thoroughly unread and unfamiliar with the Old Testament, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the entire Bible.
This unfamiliarity with the OT books of the Bible leads much of modern evangelicalism to make unfounded and unnecessary assumptions—the most damaging one being that the OT is not meant for the Church. They will use mantras like, “We’re under grace, not law,” or “We have no creed but Christ,” to avoid dealing with the fact that their very own holy book has a whole lot of material in it that they never bother reading. Thankfully, McLaren does not out and out dismiss the “god of the OT” in such a disingenuous way, but he effectively does the same thing in the way that he answers the question of, put simply, “Is God violent?”It should be noted at the outset that McLaren seemingly does not have a problem with biological evolution. Why should this be noted? Because so much of the way McLaren reads the Bible is dependent on evolutionary assumptions. He has made comments in earlier sections of the book about his acceptance (to some degree at least) of Darwinian evolution, but they were never really much more than off-handed remarks. However, in this third section, McLaren shows his evolutionary hand in such a way that it completely dominates how he interprets the entirety of the Bible. The primary assumption that McLaren brings to his understanding of the books of the Bible is the assumption that ancient people were more “primitive” than modern people. This may not seem like much of an earth-shaking revelation and you may be wondering why this would present a problem. After all, ancient people didn’t have televisions and refrigerators like we do today, and they got around on foot or on the backs of animals rather than driving cars like us sophisticated 21st century moderns.
This assumption is primarily a problem because the Bible itself never allows for it. In fact, the Bible presents ancient people as rather advanced, not primitive. Soon after Noah’s Flood, Nimrod begins building his kingdom in the land of Shinar and erects a huge tower, “whose top will reach into heaven.” When the Lord looks down on the city and the tower, He doesn’t condemn them for their silly primitiveness. Instead, He comments about their advanced state: “The Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them’” (Genesis 11:6, see also verses 1-5 and 10:8-14). If God’s words hold any meaning whatsoever here, they indicate that post-Flood people would be able to accomplish anything to which they set their minds. We don’t need to wait until the advent of the 20th century to witness incredible skill and technology in man, we see it right from the start. Ancient man was created in the image of God just as modern man is.
Having dispensed with McLaren’s mistaken presumption of ancient man’s primitiveness, his method of interpretation of the OT now becomes immediately suspect, because he attempts to explain much of what the OT teaches about a God who images violence, cruelty, and un-Christlikeness (his words, see p. 98) by an appeal to the “primitive” understanding of ancient people. McLaren himself puts it this way:
I am saying that human beings can’t do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and that Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestor’s best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God. As human capacity grows to conceive of a higher and wiser view of God, each new vision is faithfully preserved in Scripture like fossils in layers of sediment. If we read the Bible as a cultural library rather than as a constitution, and if we don’t impose a Greco-Roman plotline on the biblical narrative, we are free to learn from that evolutionary process—and, we might even add, to participate in it. (p. 103)
In other words, McLaren is saying that we, as enlightened moderns, have an obligation to read the Bible, not as God’s revealed truth for all time, but as a particular culture’s attempts to explain God as best they could at that particular time. This is chronological snobbery applied to biblical interpretation . (In fact, McLaren takes it even beyond our own generation and dreams of what life will be like in the year 3013. He envisions the future to be a world where they no longer fight wars, no longer eat meat, and no longer burn fossil fuels. In other words, the future looks remarkably like what McLaren wishes the present looked like. Apparently everyone in the future has finally caught up with his own inflated sense of cultural advancement. McLaren, by his own estimation, is a thousand years ahead of his time!) While I agree with McLaren that Scripture, in its entirety, represents a progressive understanding of God, I do not agree that ancient people were not capable of understanding God as we understand him today. Besides, all of Scripture is theopneustos, God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16); it is not a work of man. While it is true that God used men to write His revelation, these men wrote precisely what God, through His Spirit, wanted them to write. To say that Scripture is the “very best at any given moment” that individuals can do to communicate their understanding of God, completely misses this point and turns the Bible into a revelation of man, rather than a revelation of God.
In an attempt to prove the very concept that he assuming, McLaren makes this disturbing observation:
What if the only way to get a mature view of God as nonviolently yet passionately committed to justice is to pass through an immature stage in which God appears to be both passionately and violently committed to justice? Don’t we, as children, go through similar stages in coming to understand our parents? (p. 105)
Again, this comment betrays not only a primitive view of ancient man, but also a limited, pathetic view of a god who can’t seem to find any other way to show his true, peaceful nature than by being violent to his children. Was McLaren’s own upbringing like this? Do we come to love and understand our own biological fathers more as adults when they beat us and severely punish us as children? What sort of nonsense is this? In his effort to not ignore the difficult passages of the OT, McLaren ends up creating a god in his own image. In reality, the truth is much more simple (although still a difficulty in biblical interpretation): God, by revealing his just and furious nature, shows just what He really thinks about sin. It is not as though Jesus was all about love and the OT God was all about justice, quite the opposite in fact. Jesus came to fulfill His own Law. Jesus and the OT God are the same Person (which McLaren claims to believe).
The irony of the NT is that the very God Who made the Law by which He judged people in the OT, comes to dwell among His own creation—becoming a part of it—and submitting His own Body to the judgment of that Law. Jesus becomes our sin-bearer by becoming our law-keeper. Jesus died a bloody and ignominious death, as so many sacrificial animals in the OT, because of the horrible stench that sin leaves in His own nose. God doesn’t reveal what He thinks about us by His vengeance, He reveals what He thinks about our sin. Likewise, when I correct and discipline my own children, I try to always show that I am disciplining their disobedience, but that I still love them. This is not such a difficult concept that it requires thousands of years of cultural development for people to understand. My three-year old has learned this quite well and displays it by immediately reaching for a hug after I have spanked him.
McLaren does make a very important point though, one that I wholeheartedly agree with him on. He writes: “For Christians, the Bible’s highest value is in revealing Jesus, who gives us the highest, deepest, and most mature view of the character of the living God” (p. 115). While this is a true statement as far as it goes, McLaren seems to forget to remind his readers that Jesus also gave us a more mature way to be human as well. Jesus is not only the ultimate revelation of God, He is also the ultimate revelation of man. He is the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), the first fully mature (i.e. responsible) man. The Bible does indeed unfold progressively and reveal Jesus as the ultimate manifestation of God and man, but everything that Jesus said and did was completely in line with what was revealed before Him. In other words, Jesus doesn’t overrule anything from the OT, He takes it to another level. His Sermon on the Mount is an example of not only holding up the Law of God as the standard, but showing how the Law also has a spiritual side that complete and total outward obedience could never live up to. Jesus came as a confirmation of all that came before Him, not a cancellation of it.
This is a very important point because of what McLaren writes following his sentence about the revelation of Jesus being “the Bible’s highest value.” He goes on to accuse many modern evangelicals of worshiping the Bible of Jesus, rather than Jesus of the Bible. He brings this point home crystal clear in a footnote (those little numbers in books that most people never bother reading) discussing a conservative scholar’s comments about homosexuality. The scholar said this: “The Bible does not suggest that there are two levels of spiritual authority in the Bible—the more authoritative teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Paul and the other New Testament writers. They are all equally authoritative.” McLaren, in a comment on this scholar’s words wrote this: “His transparent willingness to grant Jesus no more authority than Paul renders me speechless” (p. 274). Personally, I am rendered speechless by McLaren’s own dishonesty in his comment. Unless he is completely clueless about what this scholar is actually saying—and what conservative scholars in general believe about the Bible—I can only conclude that McLaren is willfully engaging in scholarship of the most shoddy variety in order to make his point. The fact that he hides this insidious little swipe at conservatives in a footnote only tends to make me more suspicious of his motives.
In essence, McLaren is accusing this scholar of putting Jesus and Paul on the same level of authority. But no conservative scholar that I am aware of would admit to this. Conservatives fully admit that if Jesus and Paul were standing before us—Jesus saying one thing and Paul another—we would cling to Jesus and ignore Paul. This is not what this scholar is saying however. The fact of the matter is that we don’t have Jesus and Paul standing before us saying two different things. In fact, we would never know what Jesus and Paul said at all, were it not for the Bible. The conservative position on Scripture is that all of Scripture is authoritative; it depends not on who is saying it. In this sense, Jesus and Paul are equally authoritative, because the words that we have recorded in the Bible of what they spoke and wrote were superintended and inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Bible is theopneustos, remember? The Bible is not the words of men, but the very Word of God. Jesus is the Word (John 1:1) because He is the very revelation of God, just as the Bible itself is.
This doesn’t mean that we worship the Bible as we would worship Jesus though. Jesus is God and the Bible tells usabout God. The Bible and Jesus are inseparable, because they are both equally “the Truth.” What Paul says in the Bible and what Jesus says in the Bible are both divine revelation from the book’s One, True Author. If we would read the Bible as McLaren indicates that we should, we would be forever pitting Jesus against every other biblical writer. Anyway, since McLaren believes that the Bible is really nothing more than the words of men written at different times throughout history, then we really don’t have the words of Jesus in the Bible anyway; we have the words of various men who are claiming to tell us what Jesus actually said. If this is true, the Bible doesn’t contain the words of Jesus at all, it contains the thoughts, ideas, and words of men that may or may not have known Jesus (not to mention the fact that they probably had fairly primitive memories). McLaren’s own interpretive method can’t hold its own weight and caves in on itself. This is no way to interpret the Bible, and this is certainly not an accurate representation of what conservative biblical scholars believe and teach. McLaren’s straw man of conservative scholarship may leave him speechless (although he still manages to write another 200 pages; not completely speechless, I suppose), but it must be pointed out that it is just that—a straw man.
To be continued…
 Chronological snobbery, a term coined by friends C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield, is a logical fallacy describing the erroneous argument that the thinking, art, or science of an earlier time is inherently inferior when compared to that of the present.