June 28, 2010 / David Fitch

The Emerging View of Salvation: Brian McLaren and the Danger of De-eschatologizing the Kingdom

As I said on the two previous posts, I’m currently winding down my book project  The End of Evangelicalism? by writing an epilogue probing the possibility what a new faithfulness might look like to emerge “from the rubble” of evangelicalism. I applaud the emerging and/or missional church movements among others. But I contend they must avoid three dangers, three traps if they (we) are to elude the traps that evangelicalism has itself already fallen into.  That’s when I came up with these three clumsy terms, de incarnationalize, de-eschatologize and de-ecclesiologize. Here’s some of what I wrote (edited for a blog post with citations etc. deleted) on the second of these 3 traps using Brian McLaren to illustrate what such a danger might look like.

Emerging church writers have spilt much ink criticizing evangelicalism’s narrow understanding of salvation. Author/pastor Brian McLaren has led the charge. For McLaren, truly the father of the emerging movement, evangelicalism has over-personalized salvation, made it into a transaction and has generally been pre-occupied with the afterlife and escaping hell. As a result, evangelicalism’s salvation message has actually distanced the believer from the salvation that God is doing to transform the unjust world. As a result, evangelicals have become dispassionate and even duplicitous in the way we lead our lives in the world. Again, in short, McLaren agrees with everything I have written in The End of Evangelicalism? concerning evangelicals and our practice of “the Decision.”

McLaren responds the status quo by admonishing evangelicals that they have forgotten (or ignored) the Jesus of the gospels and His message: the Kingdom of God has begun. We have focused instead on the Pauline/ Lutheran doctrine that we are justified by faith in Christ through his atoning work on the cross. He argues that evangelicalism’s salvation has become a personalized middle class gospel accommodated to the comforts of American prosperity. It is a message hardly recognizable in what Jesus preached in the gospels where He announces that the Kingdom of God has broken in, a new way of life with God has begun. McLaren, true to the evangelist he is, invites his readers to identify with it and join in living the way of Jesus in this new Kingdom. As opposed to an evangelical conversion that emphasizes the afterlife, McLaren says Jesus is about the work that God is doing in His Kingdom to reorder our lives now. In joining in with God and His Kingdom we can become part of what God is doing to transform the world.

In his The Secret Message of Jesus, McLaren takes this theme that is over 100 years old in New Testament scholarship and refashions it for evangelism. He invites his readers to follow Jesus into the socio inter-personal and political dynamics of the Kingdom birthed by, in and through Jesus Christ. In Anabaptist fashion, McLaren describes how God is working not through coercion or power but in the daily (even mundane) lives of committed followers of Christ willing to participate in what He is doing through love and reconciliation. To those of us tired of the individualist consumerist habits of evangelical salvation, Brian McLaren is a breath of fresh air. He offers a salvation that includes repentance and a decision, but is grandly holistic. It is a belief and practice that shapes us out of the duplicity and dispassion that has seemed so much a part of evangelicalism’s practice of evangelism.

In McLaren’s next book, Everything Must Change, he expands on this vision. He describes the message of Jesus as a new way of life founded upon “a counter story.” This story is of course the Kingdom of God, “a framing story” offered by Jesus that truly helps us see what God is working in the world. Over against the stories of domination in our world that are destroying the earth, sustaining suffering and exploitation and perpetrating gross injustice, McLaren calls for an awakening to this new framing story, the “creative and transforming story” of Jesus (EMC, 274), where God’s love, reconciliation, sacred beauty, restoration, justice and renewal takes shape among us and in the world. This is a story “that changes everything” (EMC ch. 3). McLaren calls his readers to become true believers and participants in this “framing story,” the Kingdom of God.

It is in Everything Must Change that we see, maybe for the first time, McLaren’s temptation to de-eschatologize the Kingdom. De-eschatologizing the Kingdom happens when one separates the Kingdom of God from its fulfillment in the historical (i.e.incarnate) work of God in Jesus Christ. It is in EMC that we notice that Brian is comfortable differentiating “the message of Jesus” (the Kingdom of God) from “the message about Jesus” (that Jesus Christ, in His life, death, resurrection and as Reigning Lord, is the means by which the Kingdom is taking place) (See for instance EMC 22,98). It is therefore possible to read him in this book as advocating that we must put our faith and trust in God and His framing story – the message of the Kingdom – as opposed to submitting ourselves to the one who has been exalted as Reigning Lord and is actually bringing in this new in-breaking Kingdom. Jesus becomes (if we’re not careful) the guide, the exemplar in helping us do this. This move de-eschatologizes the Kingdom and risks thwarting the formation of a politic for mission in three ways.

1.) First, de-eschatologizing sets the stage for “the Kingdom” to become another nebulous Master Signifier which can mean anything
. When we separate the Kingdom from the ongoing in-breaking work of Jesus as reigning Lord, the Kingdom is set free from its moorings in God’s eschatological work. No, no longer grounded in its history in the nation of Israel and the fulfillment of that history in Christ, the Kingdom can be applied as a concept to any number of activities that one deems qualifies as God’s ‘ethic’ for bringing justice into the world. Indeed, it can become the means of another form of ideological complicity as we casually associate “the Kingdom” with various causes without discerning whether this is of Christ and His Kingdom. I have no question that some government initiatives qualify as God’s Kingdom, especially when Christians get involved. Yet how would we know apart from the church’s participation in God’s eschatological activity to bring this Kingdom to fulfillment in Christ? The Kingdom has of course become a Master-Signifier before. Some might even suggest that George Bush used evangelicalism’s amalgamation of democracy and the Kingdom to justify the Iraq War as the bringer of God’s “freedom” to the world. There is a long history of such “ Kingdom abuse.” Separated from the eschatological fulfillment of this Kingdom in Jesus Christ, the Kingdom can become just another Signifier that distracts us from God’s justice as opposed to building a politic of God’s justice/Mission in and among our everyday lives.

2.) Secondly, de-eschatologizing the Kingdom strips us of our ability to inhabit the gospel in peace and hospitality. Ironically, when the Kingdom is de-eschatologized, we are tempted to make it into a Cause which we advocate over against those who disagree with us. We are tempted to take control of history when the Kingdom is separated from the certainty that God is working to bring it to completion in history in Christ (1 Cor 15:25-28). As a result, the onus to bring in the Kingdom is shifted more onto what we do than what God is doing. We lose the wherewithal to participate in God’s work as patient and non-coercive participants as McLaren wants (I consider it a curious mistake of McLaren to give up on the second coming in New Kind of Christianity 197).  It is only as we are confident of what God has in store for the world, that we can participate daily as His subjects, not as ones who need control the world. McLaren’s words in his title, “Everything must change,” reveal the stress of this de-eschatologizing. Instead, I would suggest “Everything Has Changed” already in Christ and we must now participate in what God has already begun and is bringing to completion in Christ for the world. Only in practicing such a belief can Christians avoid taking on “the Kingdom” as another cause which we must fight for over against those who disagree with us. This patience and hospitality is essential for a political presense that can participate in God’s Mission in the world.

3.) Lastly, de-eschatologizing the Kingdom loses the very dynamic that gives us hope for something different coming into the world. One of the first things I learned about the Kingdom in seminary is what we used to call “the already, but not yet” character of it. From Oscar Cullman, George Ladd and other NT theologians we learned there is a tension in the NT that acknowledges the Kingdom has come yet it is not yet completed. We then are a people baptized into the new age all the while continuing to live among the old. We are called to live under and bear witness to the new realities of the Kingdom, Christ’s Lordship, his defeat of the powers, his victory over death, sin and evil. This takes seriously the fact that something actually happened cosmically to the world in Jesus Christ yet it has not been fully manifested (it comes as a mustard seed). If we separate the Kingdom from the Reign of the living resurrected Christ, we lose this tension. If we lose this tension, we lose the wherewithal to engage the world for the transformation God is bringing in His Mission.

As I said last post, the emerging church shows much promise for leading post-evangelicalism into a new faithfulness for Mission. McLaren, and many other emerging leaders, teach us a salvation of the Kingdom that breeds hospitality and authentic witness to what God is bring to the whole world. He takes the foundational teachings of Jesus and writes them for a new evangelism in our time. My concern is for a new post –evangelcial political presence of faithfulness  in our culture. I suggest McLaren contributes to such a new presence. If there is to be such a politic in our future however, we must avoid the trap of de-eschatologizing our belief and practice of salvation.

What do you think? Does Brian McLaren commit the ideological “trap” of de-eschatologizing the Kingdom? rendering the gospel of the Kingdom impotent for shaping a politial presense in the world?