Monday, November 12, 2007

Must Everything Change?

In a previous post I outlined a very different view of Jesus that I had discovered that the gospels depicted from the one that I had received as an Evangelical.

It is not just me that has come to this conclusion, as numerous scholars seem to have converged on the same view in the last decade or so. Scholars who take the gospels seriously seem to be increasingly coming to this same set of conclusions about how the gospels themselves depict Jesus. Our expanded understanding of the social background of Israel at that time seems to have demonstrated that the Jesus depicted in the gospels was the leader of a movement that aimed at social reform, "a prophet of social change", and that this is entirely plausible in the context as a historical reality (there being numerous such movements at the time in Judea).

However I wonder at the radical difference between this Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of creedal faith. The idea that Jesus was primarily a social reformer, who focused heavily on the economic suffering of the lower classes and who had borderline Communist ideals, who calls us as followers to go out and transform the world is not something that the average conservative evangelical in the pew wants to hear. It is radically different in almost every respect to the creedal picture of the Jesus as incarnate God who takes the sins of the world onto himself and in whose act of atonement we need to place our reliance and trust.

In centuries past, the social gospel of the liberals clashed with the creeds of the evangelicals. Back then the bible-rejecting extreme-liberal demythologizing scholarship rejected the evangelical Jesus and the gospels out of hand and constructed an unevidenced Jesus out of its own imagination. Whereas now it is those precisely those seeking to take the gospels seriously, and who perform careful research about the times and people of ancient Galilee that are finding this different view of Jesus. The issues are similar to what they were one hundred years ago, but the foundations are quite different. This time it is the scholars that are taking the evangelicals to task for not being biblical rather than vice versa.

The Emergent Church movement seems to be the popular spearhead of these changes within evangelicalism. Its leaders are well-versed in the latest biblical scholarship and have attempted to popularize it in their books. Brian McLaren and Steve Chalke, for example, have written books entitled The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything and The Lost Message of Jesus respectively and attempted to popularize this new view of Jesus as political and economic reformer and explore what it means for the church. Chalke's book caused a storm of controversy because of two sentences that mentioned the atonement, but nothing much resulted from his presentation of Jesus as a social-reformer. Perhaps this demonstrates that the problem with the new Jesus is not so much that anyone objects to him, but rather that our atonement theories can't handle him. Indeed, the more I study the life of Jesus, the more that objective atonement theories strike me as simply irrelevant.

Brian McLaren has just released another book entitled Everything Must Change, in which he works through this new understanding of Jesus and considers how and in what ways the church needs to change its doctrine and practices to be faithful to Jesus' mission. As the title might suggest, he thinks everything must change. This is, unsurprisingly, not proving popular with Protestant traditionalists who are convinced they believe biblical truth and thus that nothing ought to change. A somewhat amusing review says that McLaren's work should "shock and disgust any Christian", and:
"It seems increasingly clear that the new kind of Christian McLaren seeks is no kind of Christian at all. The church on the other side of his reinvention is a church devoid of the glorious gospel of Christ’s atoning death. It is a church utterly stripped of its power because it is a church stripped of the gospel message. McLaren’s new gospel is a social gospel, a liberal gospel and, in fact, no gospel at all."
For a more positive discussion of Brian's book, check out Scot McKnight's series of posts.


Blogger Jim said...

I still don't get how if people are convinced that the Gospel of Jesus is a social gospel that requires action and social change and that atonement theories are irrelevant, they still spend so much time debating atonement theories...
If they are irrelevant, why argue with them, Why not simply teach Jesus's teachings as the teachings of Jesus. Surely if the people you are teaching are convinced of a supernatural cosmic atoning Jesus, they should pay attention to what he says as well as what other people say about him.

Blogger Kevin said...

Scholars who take the gospels seriously seem to be increasingly coming to this same set of conclusions about how the gospels themselves depict Jesus

I would beg to differ on this. I believe there are many different ways to approach the reading of the gospels. Even if we were to read the gospels alone without Paul's epistles, the gospels still speak about forgiveness of sins (ie, Mark 8:27-38).

As an evangelical who is coming to see the importance of social reform, I do not see social reform as necessarily exclusive to Christian interpretation of scriptures. However, I do see your point and agree that social change is necessary. But the social gospel is still only one of the ways and it will, I believe, always be one of the ways to interpret the bible.

Atonement theory is not just an evangelical thing but has been a vital part of theology for centuries and dates back to the early Christian fathers. I don't think it will ever disappear, nor can or should be discredited or thrown out like a baby with the bath water.


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