I especially liked one sentence where Challies contrasted historic Reformation Christianity with McLaren's post-whatever Emergent-style religion.
So I left a short comment expressing my appreciation for the clarity of this one statement by Challies: "This may be the very heart of a postmodern versus Reformational understanding of Scripture. The Reformers believed that man could know and could understand the Bible. The postmodernist cannot see beyond the fallibility of the one who does the reading."
Some of the commenters at Challies' blog were more or less sympathetic with the "Emerging
Here's an edited summary of some things I wrote in the brief dialogue that ensued. I'm recycling these thoughts here, because they expand on some remarks I have posted over the past two days:
No one in his right mind would suggest that "we have no limitations when it comes to [understanding] the Bible." But it seems rather obvious that if divine grace really does enable us to know truth (as we are taught in several passages like 1 John 2:20; Hebrews 8:11; 1 Corinthians 2:10-16), then certainty, confidence, righteous conviction, and the assurance of faith are by no means impossible for redeemed sinners.
It's true that our knowledge is imperfect until we are glorified (1 Corinthians 13:12). Still, what our faith enables us to know (albeit imperfectly) is objectively true. Our fallibility doesn't nullify Scripture's infallibility. We don't need to doubt that which is sufficiently clear in Scripture.
And despite what McLaren and other postmodernists insist, it is not necessary to argue that someone's reading of the Bible is infallible in order to discover significance in the truth that the Bible itself is objectively infallible.
Unlike postmodernism (which has no room for certainty of any kind), the Reformers (with Scripture on their side), stressed the perspicuity, authority, and absolute certainty of the essential gospel message. Reformation theology highlighted the biblical promise of the assurance of faith. That was one of the ways Reformation theology differed most dramatically from Medieval Roman Catholicism, and it is the very thing postmodernist theology seems bent on destroying.
The Reformers' consensus on these matters is carefully spelled out in the Westminster Confession of Faith. After affirming the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, the Confession says:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
The Confession goes on to speak of "an infallible assurance of faith, founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, [and] the testimony of the Spirit."
Isn't that the very thing McLaren denies? I've heard him mention "certainty" dozens of times, always to denigrate the assurance of Christians who (in his opinion) are too cocksure about what they believe.
I don't deny that there are many people out there who have a poor testimony for Christ because they are too smug about things they have blindly and brashly embraced. (That includes hordes of "emergent" Christians, too, by the way.) But I think it's a serious mistake to suggest that every expression of assurance or certainty is carnal or unjustified. Assurancewhich stems from faith in what God has revealedis presented in Scripture as a virtue. It is not the same thing as arrogance, which is overconfidence in the flesh.
By comparison with the faith of the Reformers, the emergent variety of "faith" seems a very cynical brand of dogma, obsessed with uncertainty rather than assurance; glorying in self-doubt rather than confidence.
In my estimation, this perpetual uncertainty about anything and everything, though claiming to be a form of humility, is in fact shot through with the very worst kind of human arrogance. Often, I fear, it is a subtle expression of unbelief.
At this point in the conversation, someone wrote, "I'd suggest that the things that are 'sufficiently clear in Scripture' [are] relatively few things . . .and most of them are the main important things that even McLaren and John Shelby Spong (who is not a postmodern, btw!) agree with."
Knowing how much biblical truth Spong rejects, it's pretty hard to see that statement as anything other than a practical denial of the perspicuity of Scripture.
The Bible's clarity can't be measured by an opinion poll to see how many people agree on what it means. If you really think Scripture is that unclear, it seems to me that you have eliminated the ground of Christian certainty after all. You've managed to demonstrate rather than refute my point about the utter inability of postmodernism to accommodate any meaningful degree of biblical certainty or conviction.
When you go on to suggest that McLaren's criticisms of certainty "were always in the context of things beyond the basics of Christianity"that's a pretty hollow reassurance if your view of "the basics of Christianity" includes nothing more than Bishop Spong would affirm.
No significant critic of the emergent movement has ever suggested that "if you cannot know something omnisciently then you can't know anything." The point we're making is practically the polar opposite: You don't need to know anything "omnisciently" to be certain about some things. Specifically, we can be certain that what God has revealed is true.
Now, the true disciple of Brian McLaren will instantly claim I haven't solved anything with that affirmation, because the process of knowing "what God has revealed" is too subjective and we as sinners are too prone to misunderstanding. If we can't even be sure what God has revealed, it's an empty claim to say that "we can be certain that what God has revealed is true." So in the end, the only biblical certainties are reduced to a few meaningless (and, frankly, still-debatable) propositions that even Bishop Spong might assent to.
Sorry. My faith brings enough assurance to permit me to say I am absolutely certain Bishop Spong is grossly wrong even if Bishop Spong doesn't seem to understand that he is grossly wrong. I'm not convinced Brian McLaren could honestly say that. It's certainly not characteristic of the kinds of things he has said. In fact, he has rather pointedly made it clear that this is just the kind of certainty he hates. He thinks it is high-handed and egotistical.
Well, I think it's high-handed and egotistical to insist that God hasn't spoken with sufficient clarity. My judgment would be that the pomo-attitude of "Hey, i don't know everything . . .this is what i believe . . .i could be wrong, but let's not quibble over it and go get a beer" is arrogant in the extreme.
McLaren is unsure of things no Christian ought to be unsure of. He doubts the authority of Scripture. He questions the exclusivity of Christ. He can't seem to find a clear moral compass in Scripture. All of this stems from his postmodern relativism.
Now, obviously, as a clever relativist, McLaren would never admit to being an absolute relativist (pardon the expression). So he claims he is certain about a select few things, such as the fact that he is a "sinner"which in his case (since he doesn't seem to have a very orthodox hamartiology) turns out to be just another way of saying he is fallible and therefore shouldn't be too dogmatic about anything. Nonetheless, some of his readers have apparently swallowed the argument that this claim absolves him from any and every charge of relativism.
It doesn't. At the end of the day, when Brian McLaren is done dissecting the Christian faith, there clearly is not a whole lot left that Christians can be certain about. You can argue that it's hyperbole to say that McLaren "believes nothing can really be believed." Fine. But it is certainly true that there's not much of any real substance that he thinks Christians ought to be certain about. And that approach to Christianity lacks biblical and historical integrity. It is rooted in relativism, and it does undermine the very soul of Christian assurance.
The rise of Open Theism, which was cited by someone as "proof" that we shouldn't be too certain of our theology in this postmodern day and age, actually illustrates my point. If we suddenly can't even be confident about something as essential as divine foreknowledge, then how can we really say we "know" the God of Scripture? And if we don't know the one true God (or can't really say with a high degree of certainty that we know Him), we really don't know anything worth knowing, do we?
So McLaren's "new kind of Christian[ity]" turns out to be little more than optimistic skepticism. Sound irrational? I think it is.
I've read McLaren's responses to his critics, including his open letter to Chuck Colson. I don't agree that McLaren has successfully answered the major criticisms that have been leveled at him. I think he has just dug himself deeper into a dry well. But that's a subject for another day.
- "Things That Make You Go HUH?" by Scott Hill at Fide-O
- "Arrogance or Assurance?" at Jeff Wright's blog
- "A Generous Orthodoxy"--Is It Orthodox? at Al Mohler's Crosswalk.com blog
- "McLaren: 'Finding the Right Words Is Difficult,'" by Stan Friedman, Covenant News. (Here McLaren characterizes certainty as a "cancer." Be on guard for the misleading way he defends himself against the charge of "relativism." His pique seems to be aimed at Mohler because of the above article, and he wrongly implies that that charge is founded only on "one quote pulled out of context from one of his books." Bosh.)