, , , , ,

In my last post I continued a series on writers and authors within the Emerging Christian movement with a discussion of Brian McLaren. There is more to say about this important and influential author.


Several ideas in McLaren’s work seem more like weak spots or unfinished thinking than like real problems. I will share those issues with you because they are instructive although I fully expect that like me, McLaren is not finished yet, not set in stone. His views on these issues may very well change over time.

I notice a problem with McLaren’s treatment of the fall and with Genesis 3-6, a lack of work on the law and its place in the ancient as well as present tradition and, flowing from that, on how to read the story, given the role of the law then, later and now.

One of Several Points of Departure

I run into a difference between my views and McLaren’s when he seems (at first, in A New Kind of Christianity) to toss away the idea of “the Fall.” Anyone who is aware of my approach to the Bible knows I understand the motif of the scriptures as:

Creation, Fall, Redemption and Response.”

As I teach it in A Year in the Bible, you can have too big a fall or too small a fall, either of which is harmful to your overall understanding, but you cannot explain Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus without a fall, a rebellion, a disconnect, a critical separation of humans from their creator. Now, McLaren has a fall; he understands that something important changed with the initial disobedience of the original parents which the story calls Adam and Eve. McLaren has a fall but his fall is weak. I think I understand why.

In A New Kind of Christianity, McLaren weighs in on the dependence of traditional Christian theology on what he calls “the six-line narrative,” an ancient, pagan motif which corrupts the biblical story of redemption at its very core. In the following illustration, you can observe a pre-Christian version of the six-line narrative:

This is the six-line narrative as Plotinus, the great Neoplatonist of the Roman era might have visualized it, with the Platonic Ideal as a Static, perfect, state of Being, upper left, a “Fall” into mere Change, illusion and Becoming to the lower horizontal line and with Salvation being a return to a perfect, unchanging state, upper right, but with descent into Hades at the lowest point, down right, as the greatest possible evil.

Without going too deeply into this framework, it represents the dominant side of an argument between the two strongest worldviews within the Greco-Roman society of the early Roman Empire. Oh! How easy it was for the Greeks to superimpose their dominant worldview onto Christianity! The early “Christian” version of this view of “the way things are” uses the same six lines as the pagan version but it substitutes some words right out of the Bible, giving them Greek rather than Hebrew meanings:

 Do you see what happened and what happens still when you use biblical language to tell another, a different story?

  • In the biblical story, Eden was not a static state of perfect being. It was the beginning point for good change.

In the Neoplatonist/Xian story change equals the fall (often the specific change has been understood as sexual intercourse between the man and the woman)!

  • In the biblical story, the people were commanded to have sex to multiply their numbers in order to fill the earth. Any view which claims sex is the original sin suggests sin was necessary to fulfill our explicit orders from God! 

In the Neoplatonist/Xian story any such development must be bad because change itself is bad (as are the flesh and pleasure).

  • In the biblical story, Eden was to be the starting-place which leads to God’s city!

In the Neoplatonist/Xian story no such earthly thing as a city could be good. Perfection must always remain an unchanging reality, only possible in heaven!

McLaren is right to reject the classic systematic theology which has imagined God will take us earthly creatures and land us in an unending worship service somewhere else. So, McLaren gets many points from me for rejecting the huge fall which must result in the eventual destruction of creation. But then, not surprisingly, McLaren has too small a fall. (We all tend to overstate our case!)

Before I take this discussion of McLaren’s views any further, let me explain why it is truly important to have neither too strong nor too weak a fall. “The fall” is a term Christians have used to describe the rebellion of humans against the sovereign rule of God over their lives. We are the ones who were created good but who rebelled against God’s good limits on our lives. No thing in creation should be blamed for our decision to separate ourselves from God. Too large a fall tends to label aspects of God’s good creation as evil. Too small a fall? It also puts the blame for the rebellion on aspects of creation!

McLaren’s view of the fall illustrates this insight quite well. Having rejected a huge ‘creation-and-change-are-evil’ fall, he blames change in creation for a growing separation from God. In A New Kind of Christianity McLaren has trouble with God’s death threat in Genesis 3, noting that nobody actually died and then he sees God and the people drifting apart as the people developed from hunter-gatherers to nomadic herders to agriculturalists to city dwellers to subjects of empire. So, in McLaren’s view, change is not evil but it is responsible for the growing evil of developing civilization?

In my view, the point of Genesis 3-6, is that because of rebellion against the ways of God, each stage of social development was even more evil than the previous state. It was not because changes in society produced alienation. It was because we did not know how to develop justly. Humans, having rebelled, no-longer had access to God’s understanding of how change should and could be righteous/just change. Development itself is not evil as McLaren notes: it was mandated in Genesis 1:26-28. Yet it led to such extremes of pollution, degradation and violence in Genesis 3-6 that God was eventually sorry he had made humans in the first place. Why? Because something vital really had died in the rebellion: the capacity of humans to utterly, fully rely on God as their default hope and trust, even for how to hunt and gather, how to shepherd, to farm, to build a city and how to govern a large population. Sure, Cain built a city because it was in his blood to do so. But you just know it was a stinking slum.

A weak fall bothers me and if you followed the above discussion, you can see why. If we do not put the blame for the rebellion squarely on our, human shoulders then we start putting it elsewhere, like Lord Acton’s famous:

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”

Not so! Good humans, corrupted from the beginning, magnify their corruption when they obtain power and absolutely magnify it when they seize absolute power. Power itself is a good creature of God. We always want to blame something in creation for our rebellion: “The problem was the woman!” “It was the snake!” “It was change.” “The problem is sex.” “The problem is technology.” “The problem is city-dwelling.” “The problem is government and taxation.”

No. The problem is a human species which has taken trust in themselves and their own slant on knowledge, strength and judgment as their default position. McLaren is correct that things got worse as society developed but it was not the development that was the problem. We were given orders to develop a society beyond the garden so it was the right thing to do. Yet without a wholesome, trusting relationship with God, we could not trust ourselves nor the rest of creation so what we developed and amplified led from chaos to oppression, fear and death because without God we are always groping, in the dark.

That is what we must mean by “Fall.”

The Neoplatonist, Greco-Roman rewrite of the biblical story has an unbelievably big and bad fall in which all creation is toast: “Dead creation, walking!”  McLaren is right to reject these gnostic theological assumptions. They were always more dependent on Plotinus, Aristotle and Plato than on Moses, Jesus and Paul. McLaren understands that God is busy restoring creation, not destroying it. He affirms that Christians must be involved in the transformation of God’s good earth and, with Rob Bell, he sees our final destination is right here in heaven on the earth. Too bad McLaren, after avoiding what is wrong with the six-line mega-fall, goes in the other direction and imagines a “Fall” which is too small. He does not have to read the story that way. I suspect his entire approach is better than this detail, even if it has no right to be!

Next time, McLaren on the Torah/Bible as either “Constitution” or “Library.”