Brian McLaren and the Bible

08072Brian McLaren is well known as a leader in the North American ‘Progressive’ movement, which many are finding a refreshing change from the ‘culture wars’ amongst evangelicals about Scripture and authority and its implications for theology and discipleship. He came to prominence with his 2004 book A Generous Orthodoxy, which sought to cut through the polarisations often present in evangelical debate.

His most recent book is We Make the Road by Walking, and he has been on a UK tour promoting it, with Paula Gooder and others as dialogue partners. As part of their Bible debate series, Brian had an online discussion with Andrew Wilson from King’s Church in Eastbourne, and their two perspectives feature in a pair of articles in this month’s Christianity magazine. Both articles are available free online; McLaren’s is here, and Wilson’s response is here.

To me, McLaren’s position has three major problems to it. The first is that he starts with an unhelpful confusion in titling his article ‘Jesus didn’t treat Scripture as infallible; nor should we.’ This is unfortunate, and throughout his piece McLaren uses ‘infallible’ and ‘inerrant’ interchangeably. That might be fine in ordinary conversation, and there is some debate about what these terms mean, and how they are related to one another. But in most discussion about the authority of the Bible they are distinguished and the two terms have quite different meanings and each has its own history.

The idea of ‘inerrancy’ comes from B B Warfield and the so-called Princeton movement. It has the sense that Scripture is ‘without error in all that it affirms’ which is most commonly taken to mean that any factual statement should be taken as literally true. The best known modern statement of the position is the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy from 1978, which includes in Article XII:

We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

To my mind, this fails to take seriously the social and historical context of the Bible’s human authors, and in effect it imposes a modernist and literalist mindset on the text of Scripture. It is the sort of idea which has led to headlines that 46% of Americans believing in a literal, six-day creation, and many have an anti-scientific outlook. At the 2013 meeting of the Evangelical Theology Society, the conservative evangelical NT scholar Ben Witherington argued that the term ‘inerrancy’ is simple the wrong word to use to describe the Bible’s authority.

By contrast, the notion of ‘infallibility’ includes the idea of effectively accomplishing what the text is intended to do. If the witness of Scripture is intended to testify to the truth about God, and bring people to faith, then to say Scripture is ‘infallible’ it to say that it is able to achieve that, and can be trusted to do so. The term goes back at least as far as John Wesley, and it is arguably the idea behind Reformation understanding, such as Article V in the 39 Articles of Religion—and in fact is found in Scripture itself. A classic text in the OT comes in Is 55.10–11:

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to itwithout watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

And Jesus deploys similar ideas when he talks of his word ‘not passing away’ (Matt 24.35 and parallels).

McLaren’s criticisms of people wanting ‘absolute and incorrigible confidence’ applies to the notion of inerrancy, and in the main I would agree with him. But his goal of seeking ‘a proper confidence, born out of being teachable, and a hunger and thirst for justice and truth’ is happily met by seeing Scripture as infallible—able to do what God intends it to—without having to claim that Scripture is ‘corrigible’, in need of our correction.

The second issue I struggle with is the way McLaren advocates a kind of supersessionism—Jesus’ teaching has corrected and replaced what has gone before. I completely agree with McLaren on his characterisation of diversity within the canon and Jesus’ place in this:

Their statements and counterstatements are not contradictions; they are conversations. Wisdom emerges from their unfolding conversations over many generations…In this, Jesus emerges as the ultimate word of God to whom all the scriptures point. As we read in John and Colossians, the invisible God is made visible not in words on a page but in a man on a cross: word made flesh.

I also agree with his comments about interpretation; Jesus is inviting his contemporaries (and therefore us) to read in a new way:

When he says, ‘You have heard it said…but I say to you’ in Matthew 5:21-22, and when he challenges traditional Sabbath restrictions in Luke 14, he is challenging traditional understandings of the Bible and introduces what we might call ‘a new hermeneutical principle’: namely compassion.

Interpretations that lack basic human compassion, he suggests, are faulty interpretations. He is not merely tweaking conventional understandings, he is correcting them.

But correcting ‘them’, the interpretations, is a very different thing from correcting Scripture, and Andrew Wilson is right to highlight the difference. There is no evidence whatever that either Jesus or Paul ever thinks that they are correcting Scripture. Why does Jesus insist we read Scripture with compassion? Because that was the intention behind its writing!

The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love (Ps 103.8; compare Ps 145.8, or Ex 33.19, or Ex 34.6, or Ps 86.15, or Joel 2.13, or Is 49.15, or 2 Kings 13.23, or Neh 9.17, or 2 Chron 30.9, or…get the idea?)

In his response, Wilson offers a good summary of Jesus’ attitude to Scripture—during a similar job to John Wenham in the first chapter of his classic Christ and the Bible (which I read as a teenager).

[Jesus] regards the scriptures as sufficient to prompt repentance (Luke 16:31), as fulfilled in his life and ministry (Matthew 5:17-20), and as truthful, even when they are describing scary acts of divine judgement (Luke 17:22-37). In one fascinating story, he describes the scriptures as ‘the word of God’, which ‘cannot be broken’ (John 10:35).

The red letters, in other words, repeatedly affirm the black ones: as inspired; as truthful; as God’s unbreakable word.

Andrew_Wilson_2-586x328McLaren ends up collapsing the difference between the text and its interpretation, and this leads him into misreading the way the NT relates to the old. When Paul says in Galatians 5:6 that ‘circumcision counts for nothing; the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love’, he is not ‘correcting’ Levitical laws, as McLaren claims. In Paul’s own terms, his wide discussion of ‘circumcision’ is in fact a reinterpretation, even if it does not meet our criteria of what interpretation should look like. Understanding this is crucial; as Wilson comments:

Post-evangelicals often present the options as (1) an infallible Bible and an infallible Church, or (2) a correctable Bible and a correctable Church. But if we were to present these options to Jesus or Paul or Moses – or Gregory, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon and the rest – I suspect they would splutter in astonishment and tell us about option (3): an infallible Bible, and a correctable Church. That, surely, is the way to preserve divine authority and human humility; a word from God that never fails, and people that frequently do.

The most basic problem with supersessionism is that it is, at bottom, anti-Semitic. In McLaren’s words:

Jesus and Paul model a new way – a Christian way – of approaching the scriptures.

That is, they dispense with the old way, the Jewish way. Jesus and Paul, not Jewish? Enough said.

My third and last problem with McLaren’s approach is his attitude to history—or lack of it. We are steeped in a culture where the old is primitive, and the new is the only thing worth considering. In fact, we are so steeped in it that we do not even realise. Just as fish are the last to notice the water, we are unaware of this deeply ingrained attitude. I wonder if even the title of McLaren’s book is a symptom of it: the only road that really matters is the brand new one that we make by our own walking, as if no-one had ever trodden this path before us.

By contrast, every NT writer appears to live by the dictum of Jer 6.16: ‘Look for the ancient paths’. They were interested to the point of obsession in how they could prove that this surprising, dramatic, unexpected new thing that God was doing in this strange and inexplicable Jesus was in fact the same old (brand new) thing that God had always done.

So Paul includes from the beginning the ‘first thing’ that had been passed to him and which he passed on is that it all ‘according to the Scriptures’ (1 Cor 15.3–4). His great struggle in Romans 9–11 is an attempt to establish continuity between the ‘gospel’ and God’s dealings with his people Israel. At the start of the first gospel, Matthew goes to enormous lengths to locate the birth of Jesus in this OT story—and to modern eyes he tries far too hard, forcing text which we think don’t fit! At the end of Luke, Jesus ‘interprets’ (rather than ‘explains’) all the Scriptures about him (Luke 24.27).

Apostle_John_and_Marcion_of_Sinope,_from_JPM_LIbrary_MS_748,_11th_cThis sense of history is driven by two concerns. The first was credibility in the ancient world, where anything ‘new’ was suspect, and the ancient traditions were venerated. Hence Josephus writes his apology for his people as ‘The Antiquities of the Jews.’ But a second concern was theological: how could we continue to proclaim that ‘God is one’ (Deut 6.4) if he acts in two different ways? It is no coincidence that Marcion splits God into two: the loving God of the NT revealed in Jesus contrasted with the hateful demiurge of the OT. Anyone who proposes that the NT corrects and replaces the OT is walking down the same path.

There are things in Andrew Wilson’s response that I would want to question. There are difficult things in the Bible that are hard to understand, and sometimes the first word needs to be ‘wait’, followed by ‘think’, before we move too quickly to ‘obey.’ And I am not sure that Wilson’s word ‘unbreakable’ is the first metaphor I would go to to describe the Bible. It makes it sound too much like toughened glass. (Wilson takes the term from John 10.35, but the word luo doesn’t normally have the meaning of ‘break’; it is used of freeing from a binding contract, or untying a ship at anchor. The sense, then, is that we cannot simply loose ourselves and roam free from our Scriptural moorings.) But I will happily give Wilson the last word:

The best way of protecting ourselves from twisting the Bible to fit our agendas, which is always a danger, is not to continually try to correct it, but to continually seek to be corrected by it. Jesus, as always, is at the centre of Christianity. So if we are confused about something – like how we should view the Bible in a generation that dislikes authority, for instance – we can turn to him.

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44 thoughts on “Brian McLaren and the Bible”

  1. I haven’t read all of this carefully yet which I will try to do tonight (it’s still early and I am off to work soon), but my immediate impression from your comments on the 1978 Chicago Statement may not be accurate, especially where you say:

    “To my mind, this fails to take seriously the social and historical context of the Bible’s human authors, and in effect it imposes a modernist and literalist mindset on the text of Scripture.”

    Jim Packer was one of the authors of this statement and he does not believe that Gen 1 teaches a creation of six 24 hour periods. He agrees with Henri Blocher on this (‘In The Beginning’). ”Literalism’ is an extraordinarily slippery word – but in ancient rhetoric it meant ‘how the authors used these words (‘litterae’) and readers understood them’ (cf. Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram).

    Here is the nub of the issue (as I see it): Leaving aside all literary questions of form in Gen 1-11, was there an historical Adam? Was there an historical ‘fall’? Was there an historical Noah?
    Historical Christian theology, following the New Testament, has answered ‘yes’.

    Liberal biblical studies from the 19th century on has answered ‘no’.

    As for Brian McLaren, he is a novice in theology, finding his way out of childhood fundamentalism into modern religious liberalism. A new Schleiermacher. The path he is treading isn’t as new as he imagines it is.

    • But you highlight the problem. It is not just ‘liberals’ who say ‘no’ to a historical creation, Adam and flood. I think anyone taking critical study seriously would also answer ‘no’—and that is exactly the logic of Packer’s comment.

      I would agree with you about Schleiermacher, and I make this comparison with Steve Chalke’s position in my earlier post.

      • So – ‘we are all liberals today’? I don’t know what you mean by a ‘historical creation’, other than an event in space-time.(We are talking about Thucydides here.)

        If Adam didn’t exist, what is Paul saying in Romans 5? Doesn’t the whole argument collapse?

        If Noah didn’t exist, what is Jesus saying in Matthew 12? Was Jesus mistaken? If so, what does that say about your doctrine of Incarnation?

        Maybe it is better sometimes to challenge our (liberal) biblical assumptions before giving enormous hostages to fortune.

        • Pauls is making a theological argument in Romans 5; I have no problem exactly repeating Paul’s words here yet without believing in a historical Adam—no it is not a necessary corollary.

          Taking the incarnation seriously means believing that Jesus was a person of his time. This is exactly the opposite of how Islam treats Mohammed: to imitate him you must speak his language, dress the way he did, have his cultural outlook, and eat the way he ate. (Devout Muslims won’t eat melons because it is nowhere recorded whether Mohammed spat the pips out or not—and they won’t risk doing the wrong thing.)

          By contrast, Christianity is fundamentally hermeneutical. We interpret Jesus in his own context—and that means we have do not share his scientific outlook. Instead, we recontextualise his teaching in our own context.

          • I don’t know what you mean by a ‘theological argument’. How can a statement about human history be true if it concerns persons who never existed and events which never happened? How is this different from mythology – like the Greek tales of Herakles?

  2. I should add that I don’t know of anyone who takes McLaren seriously as a biblical theologian. He is an English literature graduate who had success in church planting among young people, like Steve Chalke and Rob Bell, and like them he has moved onto a soft theological liberalism which enrtails denouncing their own past. Older liberals in Anglicanism will encourage him as an alternative to HTB or the Proclamation Trust.

    • Yes, but I am not sure that his appeal is primarily to liberals. It is mostly to evangelicals who are tired of some of the inherited arguments, and frustrated with the aridity of propositional theology.

      • Hi Ian,

        I agree that BM’s appeal is largely to (post)evangelicals, although I think liberals are coming round to having some spokespeople who are actually pleasant, interesting and talented.

        I have been involved in Greenbelt for many years and to begin with the attitude to people like Rob Bell and BM was slightly sneering, both in terms of their celebrity and their message. But now…

      • I don’t understand this bogeyman ‘the aridity of propositional theology’. The Creeds I repeat every week are one proposition after another and I don’t find them ‘arid’ at all. Anyone who rails against ‘propositions’ doesn’t understand the nature of a historical faith.

        • I don’t agree. As Anthony Thiselton points out in ‘The Hermeneutics of Doctrine’, the creedal statements are rightly understood as dispositions, not propositions.

          I think there is a right criticism of the tendency of evangelicalism to be intellectualised and theorised, and disconnected both from action and from compassion. I have seen it myself many, many times.

          (I don’t think evangelicals have a monopoly on this, but we seem to have got it down to a fine art.)

          • I don’t understand this comment. A proposition is simply an affirmation which may or may not be true – and if it is true, it carries implications about the world. The Bible is jam-packed with propositions. As well as the statement ‘I believe’, the Creeds essentially summarise the teachings of the Bible.

  3. Thanks Ian. That is clear and helpful on a number of issues relevant to issues I’m wrestling with at the moment, as one ‘frustrated with the aridity of propositional theology’ but who (as a latecomer to theological study) is having to try and absorb and evaluate a lot quite quickly with a brain that’s not what it was!

  4. My big problem with inerrancy and the Chicago statement is that it fails to take seriously the question of genre. Is Ps 19:1-6 inerrant? What would it even mean for it to be inerrant? Are Jesus’ parables inerrant? What does that mean? Is Job / Jonah / Genesis 1-11 a parable / myth / midrash / fiction? How can we tell? And so on…

    Andrew Wilson has written a short book recently on the authority of Scripture – published by 10ofthose (I think). Said to be excellent, but I’ve not read it.

    • Thanks. John. I think I would agree with you—but not taking genre seriously is just one aspect of a wider lack of engagement with issues of interpretation. It is quite hard for those of us taught to engage (albeit critically) with critical scholarship to realise just how suspicious evangelicals have been of hermeneutics. My great hero David Watson actually mocked another of my heroes (and friend) Anthony Thiselton at an early NEAC for trying to persuade evangelicals that hermeneutics mattered.

      The Christianity magazine article does draw from Wilson’s book. (This is more evident in the print version).

    • Lots of questions – where will you find answers? And how will you know if your answers are true? Liberal theology is actually very straightforward on these things. It is clear that the Bible is NOT God’s Word Written (as The Thirty-Nine Articles calls it) and indeed it doubts if such a thing exists. At its best, the Bible is only an imperfect witness to ‘the Word of God’ which must be evaluated by some extra-biblical criteria. This is what McLaren, Chalke and Bell are doing when they come up with ‘the lost message of Jesus’ or ‘generous orthodoxy’ or ‘love wins’.

      And since is their real hermeneutic – a touchy-feely version of ‘absolute dependence – it is no wonder that very soon they start to problematise the Bible itself, sifting the wheat from the chaff.

      Only problem is, this isn’t what Jesus himself said about the Bible – or hell or sin or Noah or Adam …

      • Brian, here is an interesting question. Do you think Jesus believed in relativity? Or even Newtonian mechanics? Did he know these things, and just think it would be a distraction for the disciples?

        Or was he genuinely a first-century Jewish man?

        • I can’t think why he would have known these things unless he called upon his divine omniscience, and I have no reason to think here that he did, for he admitted he didn’t know the hour of the coming of the Son of Man or who touched him. On the other hand, the Gospels do represent him as knowing people’s thoughts and having other knowledge of supernatural things.
          Was he genuinely a first-century man? Yes, he was – but uniquely also God incarnate, who walked on water, raised the dead, multiplied food etc.

          An interesting question, Ian: Do you think that Jesus knew he was God incarnate?

  5. I have not read We Make the Road by Walking, so my comments may be premature, but I have two further concerns.

    1 If our model for Scripture is that it is a series of conversations and, consequently, our model for the interpretation of Scripture is a conversational one we run the risk of finding ourselves in a situation where the interpreter and the text are equal partners in the conversation. I, as interpreter, then have the freedom to sit in judgement on the text. I am afraid, whatever McLaren says, that this just looks like the old liberalism.

    Sure, there are passages which I find difficult and would much prefer to dismiss as part of an earlier conversation now superseded. But to do so means that in effect I have taken the authority away from my dialogue partner and am the sole arbiter. Better, I feel, to respect the text and find ways of dealing with the problem areas.

    2 McLaren tends to select his dialogue partners with care (although I would love to be the proverbial fly on the wall in conversations with Paula Gooder). He chooses soft targets and having demolished them then feels that he has achieved something. I will be inclined to take him more seriously when, as suggested above, he engages with NT scholars who see the teaching of Jesus and the NT writers standing in continuity with, and, in some sense at least, a fulfillment of, the OT.

    • Thanks John. I agree with you about liberalism, and made this comparison in my blog on Wilson v Chalke, which is linked below. (I suspect Chalke is influenced by McLaren.)

      The question of dialogue partner is interesting. I note he did not take Andrew Wilson on tour! But of course McLaren is not a biblical scholar, and there is the perennial question of how we engage with influential leaders who pronounce on the Bible but are not abreast of scholarship…or have really thought through the consequences of what they are saying.

      This could be an argument for making all ministers do a degree in theology….!

    • Jimmy, thanks for the link. It is a fascinating article to read, and at one level demonstrates that Brian is fully aware of what he is doing.

      But on another level it makes the problem worse. First, he continues to use ‘infallible’ and ‘inerrant’ is though they were interchangeable, and I don’t think they are. Second, he comments:

      When I abstain from using the terms inerrant and infallible, it’s not because I think the Scriptures fall short of those terms: it’s because I think they transcend those terms.

      What does he mean by this? I think the suspicious would read this as saying ‘My formulation transcends other peoples’ which sounds like hubris! Worse than that, in what sense does calling Scripture ‘corrigible’ transcend the notion of infallibility? How does an unreliable Bible look superior to a reliable one? What this does do is privilege the modern reader…and I am not clear Brian demonstrates awareness of this.

  6. There is another statement in the McLaren blog post which I find revealing

    ‘But in the postmodern era, claims of inerrancy and infallibility are a liability. In the aftermath of colonialism, environmental exploitation, the Holocaust, slavery, apartheid and other exploits of the last few centuries, we have seen where excessive confidence leads’

    This seems to me to raise some questions about epistemology and about the nature of truth. In this brave new pragmatic and utilitarian world ideas can be discarded because they no longer ‘work’. This may not tell us anything we did not know, or at least suspect; for the ‘progressive’ there are apparently no absolute truths.

    It also confuses confidence in Scripture, with confidence in our interpretations. Our understandings will always have a measure of provisionality about them – but does Scripture?

    Paul seems to have found the message about a crucified Messiah something of a liability (1 Cor 1:18-25), but did not therefore discard it (1 Cor 2:1-5).

    • Does McLaren truly hold that view? I’m sure the statement was made sincerely, but how much has he examined himself? As a progressive, I expect he has total confidence in anti-racism, social justice, etc. The problem isn’t confidence, but confidence in the wrong things.

      • Sorry, do we now have to evaluate someone’s theology not on the basis of what they have said (several times, in several different forms), but on the basis of whether these statements have been critically sifted by the person themselves…?

  7. Ian,

    Could I ask you whether you think McLaren’s approach to biblical hermenutics is similar (or otherwise) to that of Professor James Barr? (i.e. Barr’s work on Biblical semantics).

  8. Ian, I have been and am a fan of McLaren, having read most of his books and heard him speak. Whilst not agreeing with everything he writes, he has inspired me to engage my mind reflectively and critically (not used as a pejorative!) across a spectrum of theological issues.

    I could find myself writing exactly the same about you, which I hope you receive as the compliment it is supposed to be! This piece tackles some difficult concepts in a most accessible way, which I find deeply engaging. I especially like your differentiation between inerrancy and infallibity


  9. Thanks for your article.

    I have had the privilege of knowing Brian for a number of years and he is a beautiful, beautiful human being. I don’t agree with everything he writes and some of the empty spaces in his books are really disturbing, but I don’t doubt him as a person.

    I heard him on the latest tour and I too came away feeling that he had associated newness with goodness (or even with the Kingdom). But perhaps his greatest ‘failing’ is that he believes the best about people, wherever they come from. I’m sure that leads him into error sometimes, but I wish I could be more like that, rather than cynically assuming some hidden motive whenever I encounter a challenging view, as I often do.

    • Thanks Simon—that is an absolutely fascinating reflection. The further challenge is to reflect on how Jesus himself ‘believed the best about people’ but somehow managed not to fall into the traps that we do, like associating newness with goodness, or avoiding certainty because our culture does not like it.

      It is this which makes the person of Jesus endlessly fascinating.

  10. Ian,

    I couldn’t agree with you more when you write: ‘When Paul says in Galatians 5:6 that ‘circumcision counts for nothing; the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love’, he is not ‘correcting’ Levitical laws, as McLaren claims’

    To those who were outwardly circumcised already, Moses declared:

    ‘Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. *The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants*, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.’ (Deut. 29:4 – 6).

    Moses foretelling of post-Exile circumcision of the heart reveals outward circumcision to be provisional. St. Paul echoes Moses by saying: ‘No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.’ (Rom. 2:29)

    ‘Faith expressed in love’ is no more a correction of Levitical laws than a return to full civil liberties is a correction of emergency powers granted under the Civil Contingencies Act.

    The NT did not repeal the Law of Moses. Instead, the empowerment of grace ended the contingency for which Law provided:

    ‘So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.’ (Rom. 7:12,13)

    It is now the Holy Spirit who amplifies the sinfulness of sin upon the human conscience through the gospel, while offering the hope of forgiveness and the empowerment of Christ’s life lived within us.

    The combined externalisms and sanctions of the Moses’ law could never accomplish this.

    • Yes indeed, though this is not obvious to may readers of the NT. We are mired in a history of interpretation that, through a particular focus of the Reformation, pits law against grace and reads this back into Paul.

      It seems to me that the whole of Rom 9-11 is Paul wrestling with this exact question—but as you point out, the metaphorical use of ‘circumcision’ in the OT lays the foundation for this.

    • David, I would agree with you and Ian. My limited understanding is that much of what Jesus said related to existing debates amongst the Jewish people at that time. So rather than “correcting” the Hebrew scriptures, Jesus was correcting people’s misunderstandings and teaching them what their Bible really meant – the same role to the prophets of old. A subtle but essential distinction.

      My experience in the church is that many people have quite strange ideas about faith, God, etc, etc, and there are plenty who go through the motions but whose hearts are hard. It’s easy to see how the situation in Israel 2000 years ago was probably quite similar.

  11. Many thanks for a very helpful critique of McLaren. The distinction between inerrancy and infallibility, and between correcting the text itself and correcting the interpretation of the text is key. I wish the many people who find themselves drawn to McLaren’s writings would take heed of these important distinctions.

    • Thanks. Distinguishing between meaning in the text and meaning in the interpreter is a basic skill in reading…I am just surprised that someone writing on how we read the Bible is not a bit more aware of this.

  12. Just come across an interview with Bruggemann:

    Well, what we do is to pick and choose things out of the Bible that conform to our fears. It’s not a matter of obeying the Bible — it’s about obeying the gospel. The gospel is about God’s saving love that wants to restore all of humanity to full communion. To reach back to an ancient text that has now been corrected by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is simply a bad maneuver and poor methodology and theologically irresponsible. Those texts are not the determinative texts.

    The texts that are determinative are those that talk about the love of God that has been shown to us in Jesus. We can’t compromise that.

    Full interview at

    Corrected? I just don’t find Jesus doing this to OT Scripture.

    • Probably should have added a question to my last post. How do we decide what are the ‘determinative texts’? Who decides?

    • That’s really interesting. Out of Brueggemann I would take the need to read canonically, and this does involved foregrounding and backgrounding certain parts of the OT in the light of the NT. Alongside this there is the related task of reading texts in both their historical, cultural and canonical contexts.

      But as you say this is different from ‘correcting’. What does it do to the integrity of God?

  13. A footnote: The distinction between inerrancy and infallibility seems to be an in-house Protestant thing. It serves a useful purpose among those who have accepted Chicago’s right to define the term biblical inerrancy. In broader ecumenical discussions it is useful to remember that the term is older and has a different history in other parts of the church such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

  14. A few thoughts:

    1. The distinction being made between “inerrant” and “infallible” seems like much ado about a semantic imprecision. And while it is useful to operationalize these definitions for rigorous debate, it comes across as intellectual indulgence.

    2. The belief that Christian scripture is infallible seems very difficult, if not impossible, to prove or disprove. That being said, it is undeniable that people have misused the Bible throughout history. It has inspired tremendous beauty and unspeakable evil, depending on the user. Given this truth, I feel little patience for the point of infallibility since apparently such a powerfully imbued collection of texts asserts no power to dissuade its readers from evil. Most viscerally for me, don’t tell me the Bible always accomplishes what God intends when it has far too often been used to accomplish things that I believe God detests.

    3. To assert that “Supersessionism” (or whatever you call it), as it has been defined here, is anti-Semitic is a logical blunder of laughable proportions. Don’t be ridiculous. But even more, to imply that Brian McLaren has anti-Semitic sentiments is ill-informed, irresponsible, and unkind. Shame on you sir.

    • Thanks ‘C’. On 1, yes, I think it looks like this from the outside. But anyone engaging with the existing debate should be aware that these two semi-technical terms have a long history, and make an important distinction about how we treat scripture.

      On 2, I don’t think your point really considers the limitations of a written script. No text can be held responsible for how people misuse it when it is taken out of context or twisted to ends that it was not designed for. That is simply a reality of the limitations of human speech—and is reflected in the insistence in Christian theology that Jesus is the true word of God, and Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it bears testimony to the truth about Jesus.

      On 3, (as an illustration of the above!) you are misreading me. I don’t say anything about McLaren’s sentiments; I am merely pointing out that the theological scheme he is adopting *is* supersessionist, in that the testimony of the NT corrects and replaces the testimony of the OT, and that any supersessionist schema is necessarily inherently anti-semitic, in that it separates the two halves of Scripture and labels the Jewish half inferior.


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