Q & R: A nasty piece about you

Here’s the Q:

Tim Challies, a well-known Reformed blogger recently wrote a nasty piece about you, listing you among “notable” false teachers in Christian history. Many of the comments are even worse than the article. I don’t know how you keep from blowing up about things like this. The venomous hubris of these Reformed know-it-alls is stunning. Would you respond? What would you say to this guy if you knew he would truly listen?

Here’s the R:
First, I should say that “Neo-Reformed” is probably a better name than “Reformed” for folks in this camp. Reformed Christians of the broader designation don’t seek to think and say exactly what Calvin and the other Reformers thought and said, as the Neo-Reformed tend to do. Instead, they look at how creatively and insightfully the Reformers responded to issues in their context and they seek to respond to our very different context enlightened and inspired by the Reformers’ example.
Even though I’m a happy outsider to the Neo-Reformed system of belief, I have high regard for the broader Reformed tradition – which includes theological giants like Barth, Pannenberg, Bosch, Boesak, Newbigin, and Moltmann. (I know, not any women on the list – that’s a problem in all theology, but thankfully it is beginning to change.)
The World Alliance of Reformed Churches exemplified this broader Reformed mindset beautifully in the Accra Confession, which I think is one of the most important statements made by any group of Christians in my lifetime.
When I read the piece you linked to, I was struck by a few things.
1. The author may be wrong in his larger conclusion, but he largely gets it right when he says:

In A New Kind of Christianity he insists that Christians have long been reading the Bible through the distorted lens of a Greco-Roman narrative. This narrative produced many false dualisms, an air of superiority, and a false distinction between those who were “in” and those who were “out.” These three marks of false narrative have so impacted our faith that we can hardly see past them. His book attempts to do that, and to reconstruct the Christian faith as it is meant to be.

2. I didn’t think his piece was nasty. I’ve seen plenty of nasty, and this struck me as comparatively civil in its tone and rhetoric. For example, the author was kind enough to actually include my own statements. Rather than making judgments on my motives and claiming to represent me with a lot of spin, he lets me speak for myself. For example:

[McLaren] goes on to say, “I’m recommending we read the Bible as an inspired library. This inspired library 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.” After all, “revelation doesn’t simply happen in statements. It happens in conversations and arguments that take place within and among communities of people who share the same essential questions across generations. Revelation accumulates in the relationships, interactions, and interplay between statements.” He understands the Bible to be a slowly-evolving human understanding of God. “Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors’ 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.”

This is an accurate reflection of my views. I would only add that I believe this evolutionary process is the medium for inspiration and revelation, and it has profound advantages over static propositional dictation.
3. Of course, when he calls me a false teacher, he is speaking from his vantage point as an articulate, committed, zealous, and sincere Christian fundamentalist. (I mean “fundamentalist” not in a pejorative sense, but in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen, to whom the author refers.) From that vantage point, he speaks the truth as he sees it. Similarly, both Tim Challies and I could be considered false teachers by people of other traditions, since (as far as I know) neither of us are under papal authority established by apostolic succession (Roman Catholic) or the ecclesial authority of bishops recognized by the Orthodox communion, nor do we honor the seventh day appropriately (Seventh Day Adventist), nor do we affirm the “second blessing” and speaking in tongues as the initial physical evidence of being baptized in the Holy Spirit (Assemblies of God).
4. I could quibble about a few things – like the main point of the article (!). Apart from that important difference, what strikes me is how much we agree on.

A. We agree that the Bible is tremendously important. It’s not like my critic loves the Bible and I hate it, or vice versa.
But I think we part ways on our understanding of the relative importance of Jesus and the Bible as the Word of God. As I demonstrate in my upcoming book, I believe the Bible teaches that God’s ultimate word is not a book, but a person who is testified to and presented to the world through a community, which is informed and formed by a very special library of documents. I like how Martin Luther said it: the Bible is the manger in which the Word is given to the world.

B. We agree that the Bible is inspired by God, as 2 Tim. 3:16 says. That’s a significant agreement. Where we part ways, I think, is in our understanding of what “inspired” means.
To the author, inspired necessarily precludes being “subject to error, evolution, antiquation, or reinterpretation.” As I explain in several of my books, I think that makes sense if the Bible were inspired under modern conditions as a legal constitution. But I think the Bible was inspired under the terms of ancient people, for whom storytelling was their “scientific method.” (Again, I explore this in my upcoming book, We Make the Road by Walking.) I try to let “inspired” hold its meaning in the context of ancient storytelling cultures.
In fact, when we read the Bible as an inspired library in the genres of ancient storytellers, it comes alive in liberating and challenging ways and yields invaluable treasures. Stories quarrel with stories. Ideas – like sacrifice, like the priesthood, like the necessity of holy buildings or circumcision or polygamy, like the death penalty for Sabbath breaking or adultery – evolve. Some rules become antiquated (Jesus’ speaks of Scriptures being “fulfilled” – i.e. fulfilling their purpose, creating new conditions which require new rules). Standing concepts or stories are later reinterpreted and given new and previously unimagined readings – as Jesus does when he challenges his hearers on the purpose of the Sabbath (it was “made for humanity”), or as Paul does with Sarah and Hagar in Galatians. We are brought into the conversation, and called to extend it in our own time. (Which is what is happening even in this interchange.)

C. We agree that Jesus sets an example in how to engage with the Scriptures. The author is right to say, “Jesus himself spoke clearly about the authority and relevance of Scripture, and showed no hesitation in unfolding its meaning and faulting others for misunderstanding it.” Amen. I agree wholeheartedly. That is in fact what I try to do in my books. But we differ in how we understand Jesus to have engaged with the Scriptures. As I see it, Jesus himself dared to say, “You have heard it said…” and then to add those powerful words, “But I say.” To me, Jesus stands above lawgivers, priests, and prophets of old: as God’s Son, he reveals God’s heart with a fullness and finality they could not provide.

D. The author and I agree that I am not a fundamentalist. I was born one, and being a dutiful, first-born son, I tried my best to remain faithful to my tradition. As I grew older, I found the claims made by fundamentalism to be untenable – and, in fact, unbiblical. I also found the spirit of fundamentalism too often to be unChrist-like. To the author, this places me in the category of liberals, which may or not be true, depending on how you define the term.

Some definitions of liberalism don’t apply to me. For example, I’m not a big fan of reducing the gospel to fit into the categories of Enlightenment modernity. I see the gospel challenging all human categories – premodern, modern, postmodern, whatever. But if people are considered liberal because they follow their conscience and their best (and growing) understanding of the Bible and Christ – even when doing so means disagreeing with contemporary gatekeepers of tradition – then, yes, the shoe fits. But by that definition, Martin Luther was a liberal, and so were C. S. Lewis and John Stott and Dallas Willard. So, in fact, was Jesus.
The author makes an accusation almost all fundamentalists make, one I used to make in my more conservative days: that when people use their minds to interpret and apply the Bible, they place their own “authority over the Bible instead of placing [themselves] under its authority.” That dichotomy is very simple and popular, but I find it highly problematic.
Texts don’t exercise their authority until they are interpreted, and all interpretation involves the mind, values, and interests of the interpretive community in and for which the text is interpreted. So when people claim to be under the authority of the Bible, they may in fact be under the authority of an interpretive community’s interpretation of the Bible, whether they realize it or not. It’s far easier to say, “The Bible says!” than to say, “The leaders of our interpretative community say that the Bible says…” That’s one reason why it’s so hard to change one’s interpretation: doing so often means one is no longer welcome in the familiar community where one has been nurtured and to which one belongs.
To be “under the authority of the Bible,” then, presupposes the authority of this or that interpretive community and its rules of interpretation. That’s why the existence, assumptions, and vested interests of any interpretive community should be made explicit and critically scrutinized, because fundamentalists of all varieties have an interpretive agenda, assumptions, and interests they bring to the text – just as “liberals” and “moderates” in all their diversity do.
I’m reminded of the debates in the 19th century in which the pro-slavery majority in the South claimed that the abolitionist minority rejected the authority of the Bible. It would have been a good thing to be labeled a “false teacher” under those circumstances. Sadly, I don’t see many in the conservative camp who have identified the faulty interpretive methodology of 19th century conservatives and publicly chosen another path of interpretation. The same interpretive methodology still reigns supreme.
By the way, I see the same lack of self-critique in many sectors of the “liberal” camp. Who is paying attention to the faulty interpretive methodologies of 19th and 20th century liberal interpreters? Thankfully, I think that is exactly what contemporaries like Anne Howard, Frederick Buechner, Barbara Brown Taylor, Walter Brueggemann, Cameron Trimble, Stanley Hauerwas, Will Willimon, Phyllis Tickle, Tony Jones, Diana Butler Bass, Doug Pagitt, Maggie Dawn, Eric Elnes, Amy Butler, Alexia Salvatierra, Stephanie Spellers, Randy Woodley, Jo-Ann Badley, James Cone, Naim Ateek, Leonardo Boff, and many others are seeking to do in a variety of ways. I think they represent a convergence of what we might call post-conservatives and post-liberals. It is among them that I feel most at home.

E. When we acknowledge that all our interpretations are provisional, we are open to ongoing Reformation, and in that way we are all “unfinished” – unfinished-ness being another point of common ground which the author and I share. I agree with what he says in his bio:

Unfinished – Though I find great beauty in traditional Protestantism, I realize that in some areas traditions may not be fully Scriptural. Where that is the case I am eager to change as the Spirit convicts me through the Word.

OK, as to what I’d say if I knew that the author would listen, here are some thoughts … not a big treatise, just what flows from my heart tonight.

First, thanks for being far more kind and fair in your treatment of me than many people who agree with you have been. I sincerely respect people who try to treat others as they would want to be treated – especially when they disagree. To me, that’s more than just being “nice.” It’s kind and loving and decent.
Second, you and followers of your blog may wonder why I, a person who used to see things as you do, now sees things differently. You may feel I am simply too proud, stupid, weak, lazy, cowardly, rebellious, eager for fame or popularity, or otherwise sinful to hold to the truth as you understand it. (Or perhaps I’m simply not one of the elect, therefore have not persevered as a true saint would, am predestined for reprobation, etc.). I understand that kind of assessment because I spent many years of my life in your camp. I remember the appeal of your position, and I know you think what you think and say what you say out of complete sincerity and with the highest of motives, and with a sense that you are standing for and with God against a rising tide of darkness.
Eventually, I began to see problems with that approach, as I’ve explained in my books. I began feeling I was conforming to convention largely to avoid criticism from the more aggressive critics in the conservative camp. Over many years as a pastor, I became convinced that there were better ways to faithfully read and live by the Bible, and I became less willing to live in the valley of the shadow of fear of men. After much inner struggle I concluded, gradually and with a lot of prayer, fear, and trembling, that God would be more pleased with me being honest about my questions than with me pretending to be sure of answers that no longer made sense to me.
So if my only option were to be a Christian in the way you are, I simply could not be a Christian. My conscience wouldn’t allow it. My understanding of the Bible wouldn’t allow it. My devotion to Christ wouldn’t allow it. If you want to define me as a false teacher, not a true Christian, etc., etc., you are certainly free to do that, and I don’t hold it against you. I honor you for speaking your mind, and for doing so with far more decency and kindness than some of your colleagues. You are a good man with a good heart, trying to do the right thing.
When I started on this path, I knew it would not be an easy road. I expected to lose almost all my friends, lose my ministry, lose everything. But I felt, as Paul did, that it would be worth it to risk and lose everything in order to honestly and truly seize hold of what I believed God was calling me toward.
Yes, I did lose some friends. In fact, there have been many losses. But to my surprise, there were other blessings that came. People started approaching me, often in tears, saying, “If I hadn’t found your books, I would have left the faith entirely.” Not just one or two people, but many. Many pastors have even told me the same thing. This has continued for over 15 years now, and if anything, the intensity and frequency of these responses only seems to be increasing.
I know you hope and pray that this won’t happen, and I realize this is pretty unlikely … but when your kids or grandkids are older, one or two of them may come to you and say, “Dad (or Grandpa), I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe the version of Christianity you taught me. I love you, and I don’t want to displease you, but I took this course in college, and we learned ….”
If that happens, I’m sure you’ll do your best to turn them back to the straight path as you understand it. But if that doesn’t work, if they simply can not in good conscience follow your path, I hope you’ll consider slipping them one of my books or something by the kinds of post-conservative/post-liberal writers I mentioned earlier. It will not be what you would have wished. It will not motivate them to believe in verbal plenary inspiration, absolute inerrancy, TULIP, women’s subordination, the unacceptability of gay people as gay people, or eternal conscious torment in hell. But it will encourage them to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. There are worse things they could live by than that.