Over the last two weekends we have provided short quotes from author Brian Mclaren. Through his writings, he has been an influential leader among (and has shaped the theology of) the "emergent" church over the last decade.
Here is a more extended section of the quote we looked at this weekend. This comes from his website and is his response to one person's question about the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ. In an attempt to show how the topics we have covered in our series thus far are all interconnected, I have underlined a few sections and words that I want to comment on...
One major problem with the theory as popularly propounded is this: it posits that God is planning eternal conscious torment for all human beings, except those who gain an exemption through some facet of the Christian religion (including, for some, believing in this theory). God cannot forgive, the theory (in at least some of its versions) posits, without inflicting pain on someone. When you believe that the greatest existential threat to a human being is God venting God's wrath on that human being - whether that wrath is deemed just or not - you put human beings in two categories: the saved and the damned, the beloved and the hated. (You'd be surprised how many people quote Ps. 5:5 and Lev. 20:23 to me ... which too easily leads to Psalm 139:22, and even Psalm 137:9.)
How different if we believe that the greatest existential threat to human beings is human evil ... violence, greed, lust, fear, pride, anger, superiority, hate, malice, apathy, haste, rage, etc. If that's the case, then God enters the picture as the one trying to save us from the destructive effects of our own evil. God is not our greatest threat, but rather our greatest hope. God is not violent in nature and does not inflict harm ... but rather is the model of nonviolence, forgiveness, reconciliation, pardon, grace, and kindness, inviting our imitation.
Before commenting on the specifics in this quote, I want to acknowledge that many of the core questions and frustrations that Mr. Mclaren has with orthodox Christianity are understandable. He is frustrated by an evangelical Christianity that, in essence, is only about trying to get people to pray prayers of salvation so that they can go to heaven, while seeming to care very little about the real effects of sin in this world, and therefore having very little influence against injustice. We'll look at these concerns and questions in more depth when we cover "What is the Mission of the Church?" and we see how a proper understanding of God's grace doesn't lead to inaction, but rather to a church who holds out the hope of the gospel and Christians who make every imaginable difference in the world around us.
Now to the specifics…
"God…does not inflict harm…" - To begin this series, we have proposed that "contending for the faith" begins with contending for the fundamentals of (1) Revelation (i.e. what God has revealed to be true about Himself) and (2) The Source of that revelation (i.e. the Bible). Mclaren is right in asserting that "violence" is not an attribute of God - in other words, the scriptures never assert that "God is violent" the way the scriptures clearly teach that "God is love." Yet, he makes a bold statement in saying the "God…does not inflict harm." I say this is bold because it is clearly in opposition to a plain reading through the Bible. Now, one possibility here is that Mr. Mclaren has never read through the Bible - but that is not likely. Rather, to come to that conclusion about God, he has to throw out the inerrancy, unity, and authority of the Bible (which he does) in order to pick and choose which portions of the Bible are trustworthy for telling us what God is like. How you view God and how you view the Bible go hand in hand! He loathes the idea that God would be just, pour out His wrath, and inflict harm to anyone, but loves a God of forgiveness, reconciliation and grace. Yet, where do we learn about such concepts as grace and forgiveness except from the Bible, which is the same place we learn about justice and wrath. The Bible, from start to finish, has a wonderful unity that explodes in glory at the cross, because there we see God's justice and wrath and grace and kindness in perfect unity, leading to reconciliation and forgiveness. If Jesus didn't take away sin's penalty, then what did the cross accomplish?
"When you believe that the greatest threat…" - This is where we spent our time this weekend. That God's wrath against us (because of our sin) is our greatest problem is the clear teaching of scripture. Perhaps it is stated no more plainly than in Romans 5:9 "Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him (Jesus)." There it is! What have we been saved from through Jesus' sacrifice on the cross? The wrath of God! It couldn't be more clear - unless you've already decided that God couldn't possibly be a God of justice and wrath, and you've concluded that the entire Bible isn't trustworthy, in order to support your conclusions about God. Then, of course, you are free to pick and choose what you want to believe…
"God enters the picture as the one trying to save us…" - As you read through this quote carefully you'll notice another conclusion about God - He is not in control. God is entering, not as one who has been working out His perfect plan of redemption from eternity past, but as one who is "trying to save us from the destructive efforts of our own evil."
We quote Mclaren, not to isolate him, but because he has most clearly articulated a growing theological perspective that many churches and even denominations are beginning to hold to. For a more in-depth, clear, and biblical treatment of this theological perspective, see this post by Kevin DeYoung.