24 September 2005

Some recycled thoughts for the weekend: Brian McLaren and the assurance of faith

PyroManiacBack in April, about the time I began seriously thinking about entering the blogosphere, Tim Challies featured an enthusiastic review of Bob DeWaay's insightful critique of Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy. I like Bob DeWaay's plain-spoken, sensible approach to analyzing hard issues, and Challies' blogpost about that particular article was also very succinct and to the point.

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 Church Conversation," and a lively exchange was already taking place there, even before I posted—especially on the subjects of faith, knowledge, spiritual understanding, and the confidence with which a Christian is entitled to express the grace of assurance.

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. Assurance—which stems from faith in what God has revealed—is 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.


Curiously StrongAt 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."

My reply:

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.

See also:

Phil's signature


Adjutorium said...

Sir, have you seen this:

Who Has the Last Word? An Interview with Brian McLaren

I spotted from here:

Slice of Laodicea

Is Brian McLaren a Christian, is he regenerate or is he still degenerate? Lost?

Jeremy Weaver said...

Is Mclaren that sure of his uncertainty? Or is there an area there that he can be uncertain of?

Matthew Hoover said...

This helpful explanation demonstrates why postmodernism, modernism, secular humanism, radical Islam and all the rest are all the same thing: sinful unbelief. Denying the ability to know what God has revealed is a denial of the biblical faith, because that's what the faith is (Heb. 11:1).

Always beware of people who want to make out like they've found something new and unknown, like the "emergent" bunch (even if what they're selling has been lost for a long time). There is nothing new under the sun. People have heard the Word of God and known for sure since Abraham, the father of faith. And another voice has been questioning that knowledge from even before that... "Has God really said?"

Steve said...

Phil said:

"So McLaren's 'new kind of Christian[ity]' turns out to be little more than optimistic skepticism. Sound irrational? I think it is."

And sad to say, this "optimistic skepticism" offered up by emerging church types casts foists human uncertainty and doubt upon the one thing that alone has the power to bring about conviction, change, and conversion in a person's life-God's truth. Instead of trusting the two-edged sword of divine truth to do the job on its own, emerging church proponents have unwittingly inserted it into the sheath of human uncertainty, rendering it significantly less effective.

Steve said...

Sorry. Delete the word "casts" in the above post so that my first sentence makes sense.

Chris Pixley said...

Good stuff, Phil! The Emergent embrace of all things post-modern is really nothing more than a resurrection of the old gnostic heresey, the early form of which threatened to undo the Colossian church, by "taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head..." (Colossians 2:18-19). Once again, it all comes back to a question of authority. For me, I'm content to rest on the objective authority of Scripture rather than the subjective opinions of self.

Chris Pixley said...

Sorry--I've become too "spell check" dependent. I meant "heresy" rather than "heresey".

Michael Russell said...

Phil wrote:

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."

As is frequently the case, the "true disciple of Brian McLaren" - itself an oxymoronic statement, since Brian's disciples can't be "true" but only "uncertain" - at any rate, such a statement is self-refuting. To "claim" that nothing is solved or certain is itself a statement of certainty, the very thing pomo says is not possible. If we can't be sure of knowledge, then we also cannot be sure about what we do not know: a cyclical paradox, it would seem.

More important, I think, is the denial of the nascent church movement when it comes to the work of the Holy Spirit in illuminating those whom He indwells. While in nonbelievers the ability to know is significantly - but not completely - inhibited, for Christians the presence of the Holy Spirit provides a means for us to apprehend truth. As Phil says, this is not truth in it's totality but a narrow dimension of truth, nevertheless.

The EC doesn't seem to have much confidence in the ability of the Holy Spirit to figure out God's truth either. They are hopelessly lost in the dark without his illumination, as is sadly evident in many of the proud professions of ignorance that they make. Ignorance and doubt, it would seem, are the highest of virtues.

Michael Russell said...

Oh, no!

I failed to capitalize "his" in the last paragraph where it referred to the Holy Spirit. This isn't the unforgiveable sin or anything, is it?

Not that we can be sure about what is sin anyway. Or, for that matter, can we even be sure that we are sinners at all?

Jerry Wragg said...

Doxoblogist -
Exactly! I tried to help an emergent-defender see this problem. McLaren, like all those who can't see their own relativism, speaks with absolute certainty about the uncertainty of finding absolute truth. Apparently, emergents are the only one's allowed to objectively claim that "objectivity" where truth is concerned is unreachable. Everyone else's claim to certainty is merely arrogance. Their claim, however, is reality.
Classic relativism...

Jerry Wragg said...

You nailed it, Mike...

marc said...


This post made my skin crawl... only because it was back this spring that I dove headlong into the blogsphere to research emergent and McLaren. I started with amazon reviews which led me to blogs like Doug Pagitt, Andrew Jones, etc. I'm sure I stumbled across this discussion alomg the way.

Anyway, after a couple months of heavy blog lurking and occasional interactions, the sense I got (hence the crawling skin) was there was almost never NEVER any bible quoted, referenced or even acknowledged as a source of authority. Philosphy and "being real" were/are the touchstones. And if Jesus was mentioned, it was in a WWJD context not justification, or atonement.

Is it any wonder when these things aren't held in high regard that there is little assurance?

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things

Any way, I eventually seriously curtailed reading and participating in those blogs because it was so unhelpful to my overall spiritual condition. I found myself irritable, in the flesh, and needing real fellowship. Thank the Lord for my excellent wife and great local church. Oh yes and for blogs like yours that when I leave them I feel encouraged, sharpened, and sometimes like I've even had real fellowship... is that possible?

Thanks Bro

Chris Pixley said...

Marc wondered:

"Oh yes and for blogs like yours that when I leave them I feel encouraged, sharpened, and sometimes like I've even had real fellowship... is that possible?"

Yes, Marc. We prefer to think of it as "virtual koinonia!":-)

Jeremy Weaver said...

I'm having virtual communion as we speak!:-)

Chris Pixley said...

Great, Dox! I trust you're being cyber-edified in the process:-)

Phil Johnson said...

Marc Heinrich: I love "Purgatorio." Great idea for a blog. I added you instantly to the blogroll.

Sharad Yadav said...

After perusing PyroManiac I posted to Scot McKnight's blog (he's the guy who edited the excellent "Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels" in the IVP refernece set) about plausible alternatives to postmodern theories of knowledge and referenced your Lloyd Jones quote from a previous post. Maybe you'll check his site out and comment on some of his stuff (particularly on the postconservative theological stuff). Given the comments here it sounds like you've got some problems with emergent (I've got my problems with it too, though I'm not sure I'd express them the same way) and it'd be cool to see some real live interaction (postmodern types don't show up here too often!).

Aaron S said...

A helpful link with lots of audio resources:


Sharad Yadav said...

Aaron was kind enough to point those out on a post from Soylent Green in which I link to some audio files featuring McLaren, Ed Dobson and Steve Wittmer courtesy of Grand Rapids Theological Seminary (David L Turner and Victor Matthews teach there).

marc said...

Thanks Phil.

geoffrobinson said...

Didn't Jesus scold the Scribes for not knowing Scripture? So wouldn't this mean Jesus expected them to understand Scripture?

Scott Hill said...

I just wish that during on of his interviews someone would lean over and whisper in McLaren's ear, "you know this has been tried before"

Jim Crigler said...

The July/August 2005 issue of Modern Reformation has several good articles on this silly non-Christian Emergent "thing" from different perspectives. D.A. Carson chose a chapter exerpt from his recent book; the Dr. Mike's article is particularly fine; Shane Rosenthal offers some observations from attending an Emergent convention (especially scary to me, since two of the most enthusiastic folks he talked to were Southern Baptists).

(I thought about pointing out that being certain of uncertainty is ... oxymoronic (though perhaps use of Oxy might clear things up a little) ... but mike and others beat me to it ...)

m@ said...

it seems to me that, in order to offer up a valid criticism of mclaren's writings, one should actually have read them carefully and made a true effort to comprehend the meanings therein. it seems to me that neither the author nor most of the commenters have done that. and i don't mean just perusing the web and lightly sifting thru blogs or articles that you are comfortable with because they have the same vantage point as you. i don't agree with a few of mclaren's viewpoints, but i have honestly read him (and have studied scripture diligently for the last 20 years or so) and have found much value in the essence of his books. don't take my word for it, pick up a book and read it from start to finish. if mclaren is too difficult, then start with rob bell (velvet elvis) to get a better overview of emergent thinking. postmodernism cannot be understood by simply taking small fractions (or nuggets) out of context.