Jesus Creed

Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy has called forth an enormous response, much of which has simply not taken the time to read the book carefully and assess it as a rhetorical wake-up call for Evangelicalism to take stock with how it makes its case for theological truths.

I am going on record here to say two things about Generous Orthdoxy: first, the book is a challenge to get Evangelicals to think through some of its basic beliefs in light of the developments of a shifting global culture. Second, Generous Orthodoxy is misunderstood if it is seen as some kind of “statement of faith,” though surely McLaren is wending his way into such discussions often enough.

The single-most difficult comment in Generous Orthodoxy for me is found on p. 35:

“Beyond all these warnings, you should know that I am horribly unfair in this book, lacking all scholarly objectivity and evenhandedness. My own upbringing was way out on the end of one of the most conservative twigs of one of the most conservative branches of one of the most conservative limbs of Christianity, and I am far harder on conservative Protestant Christians who share that heritage than I am on anyone else. I’m sorry. I am consistently oversympathetic to Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, even dreaded liberals, while I keep elbowing my conservative brethren in the ribs in a most annoying – some would say ‘ungenerous’ – way. I cannot even pretend to be objective or fair. This is simply an inexcusable shortcoming of the book that serves no good purpose, unless by some chance it could generously be included under the proverb, ‘Faithful are the wounds of a friend’ (Proverbs 27:6 NASB). Even so, will I be grateful and gracious when this friendly wounding is generously reciprocated?”

When I read this I was annoyed, and when I read it now sometimes I get annoyed. But that is his point: when many think they are “unbiased” or “objective” or “fair,” Brian wants to say that they are probably not being fair. Each of us is biased. What I now think of this statement is this: this an exaggerated claim of one’s own limited understanding. It annoys me because it is exaggerated, but within that exaggeration is one of the most honest comments you will find in an author. Each of us is biased. Brian admits it. I have different takes on lots of things Brian says, but the conversation he has opened is an important one. I see this series of blogs to be a conversation with Brian and you about what concerns us most: how do we live the gospel in our day?

Now, I want to make a claim about the Emerging Movement that undergirds everything Brian and many others are saying: the generous orthodoxy that is being called for is an evangelical generosity and orthodoxy. It is a generous evangelical orthodoxy.

The Emerging Movement [=EM] offers all kinds of qualifications about being post-evangelical/liberal, post-this-and-that (I’ve blogged aplenty on this), but anyone with a wide enough lens to see what is going on sees the EM as an evangelical movement.

Why? First, it is not officially connected to either Roman Catholicism or to Eastern Orthodoxy, though it appreciates the fullness of the Church in a genuine ecumenical spirit. There are only three options: RC, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Is there a fourth? (I will suggest so at the end of this post, but it may surprise you.)

Second, nearly all of its leaders (and we would have to know more than I do about who gets to be called “leader” here) are Christians who have come through (and out of?) the Evangelical movement. Thus, their faith came into being in that context, and — as Sheryl Crow sings it — the first cut is the deepest.

Third, the EM is stubbornly and irresistibly and never-to-change low church, independent, and profoundly local. These are signs of an Evangelical ethos. There was a low rumble disagreement about Tony Jones being called “Director.” Why? Independence is valued; independence is the hall-mark of the Protestant movement. Local is valued; local is another trait of the same segment of the Church.

Fourth, the EM is radically protestant in its desire to “go back to the Bible and do it all over again so we can live faithfully for today.” There is nothing new about this: this is Anabaptist, this is radical reformation stuff. And, this is the stuff of Evangelicalism.

Fifth, I have no desire here to define “Evangelical.” Many want to define it sociologically, others want it to be defined theologically. Take Grenz’s “convertive piety” or David Bebbington’s “big five doctrines” or Randy Balmer’s “patchwork quilt.” Fight all you want about the term, it still works, and it is about the only genuine term on the shelves that fits what is going on in the EM. I do think that many in the EM see a new day coming when the EM may well shed its “Evangelical” category and find itself with a new term or a new label, but that day has not yet arrived. Do I think it will come? Perhaps so.

Right now, I think the “generous orthodoxy” it is striving for is a generous evangelical orthodoxy. Many want to get beyond that term (evangelical) because they are responding to and moving away from and beyond evangelical.

Now I wish to make a proposal that changes the title of this post: the sort of evangelicalism the EM is striving for is anabaptist. As we in the EM seek to fashion a label and a category for what is going on, perhaps the only genuine label that comes close is “anabaptist.” Some of you may know of the famous booklet published by William R. McGrath called The Anabaptists: Neither Catholics nor Protestants. In many ways, I think the EM is a new statement of McGrath’s claim. The best history of the movement is William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story. I could wish that many in the EM would read this book, but realize that it is the story of another movement. The EM and Anabaptism are clearly different, but the spirit of the two is similar. Radical reformation, radical ecclesiology.

This is the first in a series of about ten posts on the characteristics of a generous (evangelical) orthodoxy which may be a new anabaptist movement. Each day will focus on a category and the need for generosity for each of those categories. I invite “conversation” and I discourage those with a testy spirit.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus