The Reformation, Martin Luther, the Apostle John, “A New Kind of Christianity,” and My Astute Hermeneutics Students

Several years ago, in 2010, Brian McLaren completed his at least apparent departure from Christian orthodoxy with the writing of his book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.  The biblical theologian, James Hamilton, forthrightly declared that the Christianity which McLaren offered in this book was “no Christianity at all.”  And the systematic theologian, Bruce Ware, wryly remarked, “I’ve thought of Brian McLaren for years as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but I think in this book, he took the sheep’s clothing off.”

In his second chapter, McLaren, after suggesting through his use of analogies that what he is going to do in the book will be as important as the American revolution, Darwin’s theory of evolution, Einstein’s theory of relativity, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the discoveries of Galileo, finally arrives at his most important analogue, the great sixteenth-century reformer, Martin Luther.  He describes Luther as a “thirty-three-old seminarian,”[1] who challenged the status quo with his ninety-five theses, getting himself into “hot water” in the process (16-17).  While correctly noting that Luther’s protest was against the practice of selling indulgences, and that, to be sure, “the ninety-five theses successfully sparked a debate that further destabilized the uneasy status quo of the late Middle Ages” (17), McLaren fails to note that the content of the ninety-five theses was the result of years of intense theological study of the Bible in its original languages, and he misleads his readers into thinking that Luther was in any way about the upsetting the status quo.  Luther was totally unconcerned about upsetting the status quo or setting forth a new religion; rather he was about recovering a doctrine that he believed to have been held by the Apostles and the ancient fathers of the church, the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in the Christ who, by his substitutionary atonement and his shed blood, procured redemption and the forgiveness of sins.  In other words, Luther was one of those theologians whom later in the book McLaren will refer to as a worshipper of a “damnable idol” (65).

When McLaren proposes “in homage to Martin Luther,” to “humbly” offer a ninety-sixth thesis to launch his readership on a quest for a new kind of Christianity (18), it is more than just a little perverse.  It can hardly be said to have been done in homage to Luther, and while it is dangerous for one to presume to speak for a dead man, I would nevertheless suggest that were Luther alive and here today he would strongly and appallingly reject the homage.  McLaren has profound disagreements with Luther, and his new quest is one that neither Luther, nor the other reformers, nor the ancient fathers, for whom the reformers had such tremendous respect, would have condoned or blessed.  As far as the “humbly” is concerned, McLaren’s comparisons of his work to that of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Galileo, and his self-appointment as the twenty-first century Martin Luther do little to support that characterization.

So what is this all-important, Luther-homaging, and humbly-offered ninety-sixth thesis?  It really isn’t even a thesis, but here it is:

It’s time for a new quest, launched by new questions, a quest across denominations around the world, a quest for new ways to believe and new ways to live and serve faithfully in the way of Jesus, a quest for a new kind of Christian faith. (18)

Immediately, before even beginning to unpack his thesis, he acknowledges that there are those who will not be interested in this new quest: “ ‘The old kind is just fine, thank you very much,’ they’ll say.”  And he is certainly correct.  But again, McLaren employs a twisted analogy as he compares those who won’t join him in his new quest to Luther’s detractors and persecutors.  Notice just how ironic this really is: McLaren, who doesn’t believe what Martin Luther believed, nevertheless portrays himself as the new twenty-first century Luther, and compares his opponents to Luther’s opponents, even though McLaren’s opponents actually do believe what Luther believed.  “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).

In a footnote, McLaren clarifies that he does “not say our quest is for new things to believe in contrast to old things, but rather new ways to believe” (262, n. 2).  If this were true, there really wouldn’t be much of a problem with McLaren’s proposal.  While there are of course exceptions, most evangelical Christians are remarkably open to the idea that different times and different questions call for new ways of living out the Christian faith and new ways of expressing it.  There is, in fact, nothing at all new about that part of the proposal.  The problem is that McLaren wants also a new kind of Christianity, and despite his disclaimers in the quotation at the beginning of this paragraph, it becomes abundantly clear from the answers he gives to these new questions, that he is indeed proposing new things to believe in contrast to old things.[2]  Despite his protestations to the contrary, he does in fact want to remove a large swathe of Christian doctrine to arrive at this new Christianity.

McLaren then lists the ten questions to which he will attempt to provide “responses” rather than “answers” (22).[3]  These questions are (19-22):

1. The narrative question: What is the overarching story line of the Bible?

2. The authority question: How should the Bible be understood?

3. The God question: Is God violent?

4. The Jesus question: Who is Jesus and why is he important?

5. The gospel question: What is the gospel?

6. The church question: What do we do about the church?

7. The sex question: Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?

8. The future question: Can we find a better way of viewing the future?

9. The pluralism question: How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?

10. The what-do-we-do-now question: How can we translate our quest into action?

For the rest of this post, I want to zero in on the chapter in the book where McLaren raises the pluralism question: “How should followers of Jesus relate to the people of other religions?”  And now, behold entering onto the stage, the first-year seminary students in my “BI 412 Biblical Hermeneutics” course.” For one of their exercises this semester, I asked them to read the book of 1 John, and then, evaluate the following statement in the light of the context of the entire book:

A challenge to conventional us-them categories is offered in 1 John: not those who share our creed, but those who do what is right and just demonstrate that they are God’s children (2:29; 3:7); those who love show that they have passed from death to life and are part of God’s family (3:14; 3:24; 4:7; 4:16-21).

Now, I did not tell them that the quotation was from this chapter of McLaren’s book (210), so the students did not have a whole lot of context with which to work (and the quotation does not show up in a Google or Google Books search!).  Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of them recognized, to varying degrees, the problematic nature of this statement (kudos to my students!).  It is certainly true that John indicates that doing what is right and just, and walking according to love, demonstrates the passage from death to life and marks out those who belong to God’s family.  However, to argue that John is challenging us-them categories, or that he is ignoring the need for those who would identify as Christians to share a common creed, is easily shown to be a horribly bad reading by a number of passages in the book.

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.  (1 John 1:3)

Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come.  This is how we know it is the last hour.  They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us.  For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.  (1 John 2:18-19)

I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth.  Who is the liar?  It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ.  Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son.  No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.  (1 John 2:21–23)

As for you, see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you.  If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father.  And this is what he promised us—eternal life.  I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray.  (1 John 2:24-26)

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.  This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.  This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.  (1 John 4:1-3)

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.  This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.  In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands.  (1 John 5:1–3).

Who is it that overcomes the world?  Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.  This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ.  He did not come by water only, but by water and blood.  And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.  For there are three that testify:  the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.  We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son.  Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony.  Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.   And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.   Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.  (1 John 5:5–12)

And then, going on into 2 John, note the following:

And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands.  As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.  I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world.  Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.  Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully.  Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.  If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them.  Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.  (2 John 6-11)

Wow!  It certainly looks to me like John is working with “conventional us-them” categories; and he certainly seems to be convinced that the ones who belong to the family of God are those “who share our creed”!  And my first-year hermeneutics students, simply by doing a responsible reading of the larger context of 1 John, astutely saw the difficulties with the cited statement I gave them.

Three additional notes about this assignment I gave to my students:

(1) It is important to point out that in this chapter, as well as in other of McLaren’s writings, there is a terrible conflation of two separate issues.  On the one hand, McLaren rightly notes that we should treat people of other religions with dignity and respect.  On the other hand, McLaren wrongly conflates this truth with a very deficient understanding of what constitutes evangelism to other religions, one that places little emphasis on conversion and comes perilously close to the idea that evangelism need be nothing more than helping Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus to be better Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, but with a little bit of Jesus thrown into the mix.  After all, it isn’t creed that matters, but love and love alone.

(2) Contrary to the impression that one might get from McLaren’s misreading of 1 John, when the apostle talks about love, he is talking specifically about love for one’s brothers and sisters; that is, one’s brothers and sisters in the Christian faith.  I do not mean by this that John’s message is to love believers and hate non-believers.  But I do mean that “brother” and “sister” in 1 John refer specifically to those who share the same creed, those who, because of their belief in Christ Jesus, have already become children of God (John 1:12), those who are indeed brothers and sisters of our older brother Jesus Christ (Heb 2:12).  This is very similar to what Paul says in Gal 6:10 that, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”  So, unlike what McLaren suggests in this chapter, the love that John emphasizes in his letter is not an indiscriminate love in which anyone of any religion can engage, and by doing so show that they are members of God’s family.  Rather, the love John describes is the one that binds believers together into the household of God, based on a common core of beliefs about who Jesus is and what God has done in Christ Jesus.

(3) Finally, and coming back to the Reformation/Martin Luther theme, it is important to note how much Luther himself would have disagreed with McLaren’s understanding of what John is trying to say in his letter.  Note what Luther says in a sermon he preached on 1 John 3:13-18; in this paragraph he unpacks the meaning of v. 14.

Such is the right interpretation and understanding of John’s expression: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren.”  It leaves in its integrity the foundation, justification, or deliverance from death, through faith alone.  This is the first element of Christian doctrine.  Granting that faith does justify, the next question is whether the faith is real or simulated, being merely a deceptive show and unsupported claim.  The clear information imparted by the apostles is, that love, indeed, does not deliver from death, but that deliverance from death and the presence of life becomes a matter of sight and knowledge in that love has been wrought.  (emphasis mine)

And earlier in this same sermon, almost as if he were anticipating the kind of misreading that McLaren employs, Luther says this:

The explanation is found in the words “We know.”  John says plainly, “From the fact that we love the brethren, we know we have passed out of death into life.”  Love of the brethren is the test whereby we may ascertain who are the true believers.  The apostle directed this epistle especially against false Christians; many there are who extol Christ, as did unbelieving Cain, and yet fail to bear the fruit of faith.  John’s reference is not to the means whereby we pass from sin and death to life, but to the proof whereby we may know the fact—not to the cause, but to the effect.  (emphasis mine)

Indeed, perfectly in line with Luther, at least a couple of the students in the class (I don’t know if these students ever read Luther or not) suggested in their remarks that the author of the citation I asked them to read may be confusing cause with effect, or confusing foundation/basis with proof/evidence.

So, my brothers and sisters, as we approach this coming Reformation Sunday, and the 499th anniversary of the Reformation this coming October 31st, let us keep in mind that the Reformation was not by any means the “end all to be all.”  Indeed, something we must always keep in mind is that Reformed theology must be semper reformanda, “Reformed, yet always reforming.”  That reforming process will be continued by the maintenance of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, and by the responsible interpretation of that Scripture.  But the reformation process is not continued by shoddy exegesis, by a “progressive” agenda, or by an a-contextual reading of Scripture that reads atomistically, one that reads sentences against the grain of their contexts as opposed to reading them with their contexts.  This is not a continuation or an analogue of the Reformation.  Rather, this is a “deformation.”

I close with a word to my keen hermeneutics students; however, they are not actually my words, but the Apostle Paul’s:

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.  Watch your life and doctrine closely.  Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.  (1 Tim 4:15-16)

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.  (2 Tim 2:15)

Jerry Shepherd
October 25, 2016

[1] This is only the first of many places in the book where McLaren’s lack of historical research evidences itself.  Unless he means for the word “seminarian” to refer to any member  of the seminary community, including not only students, but staff, faculty, and administration, a usage with which I myself am totally unfamiliar, he has incorrectly applied this term to Luther (later in the chapter, McLaren refers to a hypothetical “fellow student” of Luther’s, which suggests that he did in fact believe that Luther was a student).  The reformer was not a seminary student, but a professor, a Doctor of Bible, at the University of Wittenberg, having earned his Doctor of Theology degree five years earlier in 1512.  As even one of McLaren’s one-time defenders, John H. Armstrong, notes, “He is well-read but does not always do the most careful scholarship” (John H. Armstrong, “Whither Brian McLaren,” n.p.  Online:  http://johnharmstrong.typepad.com/john_h_armstrong_/2010/03/whither-brian-mclaren.html (accessed October 24, 2016).   Of course, one cannot be sure whether McLaren was simply unaware that Luther was not a student but a professor, or whether this was an intentional attempt to make the account more romantic.

[2] I use the word “new” here from McLaren’s perspective; in actuality, his new things to believe are indeed simply old heresies.

[3] Though, as many bloggers have noted, the vehemence with which McLaren provides his responses sure makes them sound like answers—and dogmatic ones at that.

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