This is the second post interacting with Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. Please remember that I cannot reproduce the book in these posts. I will do my best to summarize without being overly simplistic or reductionistic. Each post will be two parts. The first will be a summary of McLaren’s discussion and the second will be my reflections.
The Authority Question: How should the Bible be understood?
As with the narrative question, McLaren, sets up two opposing views of how to understand the Bible. The first is what he calls the “Constitutional View (78).” He sees this view as the cause for three critical problems he highlights regarding our use and understanding of the Bible:
- The scientific mess (68)
- The ethical mess (68)
- The peace mess (69)
We come out on the “wrong side” of these issues over and over again because we have missed the very nature of the Bible. McLaren argues his case by using the issue of slavery and comparing how Christians in the South used the Bible to defend slavery. As a result, “We must find new approaches to our sacred texts, approaches that sanely, critically, and fairly engage with honest scientific inquiry, approaches that help us derive constructive and relevant guidance in dealing with pressing personal and social problems, and approaches that lead us in the sweet pathway of peacemaking rather than the broad, deep rut of mutually assured destruction (70).”
McLaren goes on to argue that as a result of our understanding the Bible in a constitutional matter we read it like lawyers in a courtroom. In so doing we create a case for a particular and then look to find how to support our case by the precedents found in the text. This approach, it is argued, creates tensions in the text that have to be reconciled and in so doing damage is done to the Bible. The greatest problem is that unlike constitutions which can be amended, the Bible is the word of God and therefore cannot be.
This is in opposition to the nature of the Bible that McLaren proposes, that of a library of culture and community. This means that it is a “carefully selected group of ancient documents of paramount importance for people who want to understand and belong to the community of people who seek God and, in particular, the God of Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, and Jesus (81).”
The Bible then should be expected to have tension and even contradictions. Why? Because it is a library with different works of literature that are coming from different perspectives. This is what we expect in any library and the biblical library is no different. Internal discrepancies within a constitution are great problems but they are signs of “vitality and vigor in the literature of a culture (82).”
How does then apply out to understanding the issue of authority? If the Bible is not full of propositional truth, then how does revelation work? It works, says McLaren, through conversation. The basis for his argument comes from the book of Job. He sees in Job proof that, “revelation occurs not inthe words and statements of individuals, but in the conversation among individuals and God, we might say (italics original, 89–90).” How does he get here? He does so by seeing that Job’s companions are chastised by God even though they were quoting from the Bible in their responses to Job. Job is not chastised and yet he was the one questioning God. The problem continues for McLaren because in Job we have Satan speaking and God speaking and these other characters. Are their words inspired by God? Certainly not, McLaren says. These words are used by God to draw us into conversation with the text to leave us in a place of wonder.
He contrasts his view with conservatives who seek to “put us ‘under’ Scripture (96).” He also contrasts his view with liberals who seek to “put us ‘over’ Scripture (96).” McLaren’s desire is to “put us ‘in’ Scripture (96).”
I really appreciate the call that McLaren makes in regard to how we understand the Bible. I have seen this constitutional view in action and it is disheartening. I also appreciate how he desires us to come to the Bible with awe and wonder. This is good, nay, very good. I really like how he closes this section out, “I hope this approach can help us enter and abide in the presence, love, and reverence of the living God all the days of our lives and in God’s mission as humble, wholehearted servants day by day and moment by moment (97).” Any approach to the Bible that short circuits this response is flawed and yet often times the lack of this response is not due to our approach but to our hearts.
I think that where I struggle with McLaren’s approach is that, in my opinion, he does not give the Scriptures their due. It seems that he has made them less than what they are. To relegate them as a mere conversation partner in our spirituality pushes them to the periphery, by definition. Looking at Job it seems that revelation comes through God’s self-disclosure, not as result of conversation. The Scriptures are a special revelation of the transcendant God to his creation and in so doing help us experience his immanence. It is here where our sense of awe is derived, the immanence of the transcendant God before us in the Bible.
When we read the Bible we interact with God. We must ask questions and seek him in the midst of this. We must engage fully. Dare I say even converse? Yes. In so doing though we must acknowledge that this interaction is more along the lines of a student conversing with a professor as opposed to a peer. The Bible is not an ongoing conversation. It is not changing. When the authors wrote they wrote with purpose. They had an intended meaning. We engage with the Bible and ask questions to understand this meaning, then we must understand how it applies to our world now. This process does not change the Bible. It changes us.