I shared some of my initial impressions of McLaren’s new book in my previous (somewhat rambling) post. In this post I want to narrow my vision a little bit and look at some of the theological currents running through the first part of the book. There are a number things that McLaren is talking about and I want to pull some of these strands apart and look at them individually.
- McLaren is looking at the atonement in a way that is outside of the Western (read: Augustinian) tradition. McLaren does not call out our man in Hippo by name, but he talks about how Western Christianity changed its views of these things (for the worse) in the 5th or 6th C. – pretty obvious hint there. The obvious place (at least for me) if you want to look for an non-Western view of the atonement would be the Orthodox tradition. Yet I see little or no evidence of McLaren looking East.
- McLaren is still holding onto the Anabaptist tradition into which he was born. The place where the church got it wrong was, in his view, at the Constantinian turn. Given the pacifist streak and the rejection of political power in many strains of Anabaptist theology, it is not surprising to see someone from the Anabaptist tradition uncomfortable with state power. Many, particularly in the neo-Reformed camp are much more comfortable with the church aligning with the state.
- McLaren does not take the creation account literally. Again this is something that would trouble some evangelicals but such a view is acceptable to even the current (conservative) Vatican.
All of this is, perhaps, a long-winded way of saying that there isn’t much that is actually new in McLaren’s book, though it may be new to some of his readership. I suppose in McLaren’s defense, it’s not a secret that he writes for a popular audience and isn’t necessarily try to break new intellectual ground. While his opinions may have antecedents in other strains of Christianity, McLaren is drawing a distinction between what he believes and what evangelicals have conventionally believed.
A number of bloggers have suggested that it’s for the best that McLaren has drawn these distinctions so that people will know who is on what side. I’m not so sure about that, what seems to have happened instead is that people are putting themselves into theological crouch positions where believers are asked to pick a “side” in this. This troubles me since one of the things that I have wanted to do more reading on is different Western and non-Western views of the atonement. If I end up incorporating something non-Augustinian into what I think about the matter are people going to say “Ah ha! McLarenite! Convene the heresy trial!” or something like that? Put another way: Someone (possibly N. T. Wright) has said that they think 1/3 of their theology is wrong, they just don’t know which third it is. If we have the humility to admit that we may be very wrong about lots in our theology we should have the ability to adapt our theology if we are convicted that we are wrong about something – choosing sides and making “teams” is not a great way to facilitate this.