In this series of posts we are taking the questions Brian McLaren addresses in “A New Kind of Christianity” one by one. The method will be to ask the question, look at how McLaren believes Western Christianity answers the question, how McLaren answers the question himself and lastly how I would answer the question. In this post, we will address the 3rd question McLaren mentions in the book.
The Question: Is God Violent?
Western Christianity’s Answer: McLaren doesn’t really have much to say about how Western Christianity has answered this question in the past. He talks about how certain groups of many different religions have read their holy books in a constitutional way and have used their respective holy books to justify violence, but McLaren in no way indicates that he thinks this is normative of Western Christianity. (For more on what it means to read the Bible in a constitutional way, read the post on Question 2: How Should The Bible Be Understood?)
Brian McLaren’s Answer: In short, Brian McLaren’s answer to the question “Is God Violent?” is “No.”
The obvious next question, then, is “What about all those stories in the Old Testament where God seems to command and/or approve war?” McLaren’s answer is, essentially that we need to remember to read the Bible in light of the overall storyline. The overall storyline is that everything in salvation history is working towards Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. What we have in the Biblical authors’ writings throughout the Old Testament, then, is an evolution of their understanding of God. As the storyline gets closer and closer to Jesus, God’s self-revelation gets more and more clear until finally, we meet Jesus, who is the ultimate revelation of God.
This might throw some red flags. Does this mean we can’t trust those earlier revelations of God? Were the writers of those earlier books lying?
Let’s look at a metaphor that McLaren uses, because I think it is very helpful. Think of a series of Math textbooks ranging from 1st grade to 6th grade. In the 1st grade textbook, we learn that you cannot subtract a larger number from a smaller number. Ok. That makes sense. You progress through the textbooks, though, and you later learn that indeed, you can subtract a larger number from a smaller number, and when you do, you end up with a negative number. Were the authors of those first textbooks lying? Should you throw away everything else that is in those early textbooks? No. Of course not. It’s just that you needed to be taught more basic principles before you move on to more complex principles.
The same is true in God’s revelation of Himself. He needed to reveal to us basic principles first, before we could understand what it means to “love our neighbor” or “love our enemy” or that the greatest love one can have is to lay one’s life down for someone else. Because of humanity’s lack of understanding, God had to reveal more basic principles before He could reveal more complex ones.
Chris’ Answer: Again, with this question I agree essentially with McLaren’s understanding. I do think there is merit to a sort of progressive understanding of revelation.
Having said that, once again, I think McLaren is at risk of taking it too far. McLaren goes on to say that because revelation is progressive, we must not assume we have already arrived. In my reading, McLaren is somewhat vague in what he means by this. I agree if McLaren simply means that in our personal lives, we are not perfect in lining up our lives with the revelation of Jesus.
I strongly disagree, though, if McLaren means that we ought to be expecting even more revelation before Heaven. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. Scripture is clear on this. Scripture is also clear that when Jesus returns, we will see things more clearly. But until then, we have all the revelation we are going to get in the revelation of Jesus Christ.
So, in short, I agree that a helpful way to understand violence in the Bible (or slavery or women’s rights, for that matter) is to understand revelation in a progressive way. We just have to keep in mind that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, and our lives and understanding need to line up with Him.
This emphasis on Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God leads perfectly to Question #4–“Who Is Jesus and Why Is He Important?” Stay tuned!