Friday, July 12, 2013

Brian McLaren and Skepticism on Steroids

Pastor Brian McLaren reflects the skepticism of the Emergent Church. He claims that, among other things, we cannot ever be certain about our interpretation of Scripture:

  • How do “I” know the Bible is always right? And if “I” am sophisticated enough to realize that I know nothing of the Bible without my own involvement via interpretation, I’ll also ask how I know which school, method, or technique of biblical interpretation is right. What makes a “good” interpretation good? And if an appeal is made to a written standard (book, doctrinal statement, etc.) or to common sense or to “scholarly principles of interpretation,” the same pesky “I” who liberated us from the authority of the church will ask, “Who sets the standard? Whose common sense? Which scholars and why? Don’t all these appeals to authorities and principles outside the Bible actually undermine the claim of ultimate biblical authority? Aren’t they just the new pope
McLaren inflates the problems of interpretation, claiming that we can’t really interpret with any degree of certainty without first having a proven method of interpretation.

However, a little common sense plus a handful of experience might shed some light on this “problem.” We engage in easy-to-understand conversation all the time, without a proven system of interpretation. When I ask the attendant to pump me $20 of “regular,” he knows exactly what to do. No confusion; no need for a proven method of interpretation! Why should it be any different when interpreting the Bible?

When I read the “50 mph hour” speed limit sign on the highway, I’d like to believe that it means “65 mph.” However, I know what it means. In fact, this interpretation is further corroborated when the highway patrol tickets me for doing “65.” Interpretation doesn’t pose any significant problems.

Likewise, we have numerous ways to corroborate our interpretation of Scripture. Any one verse has many corroborating verses. We call this “Scripture interpreting Scripture.” Of course, some passages can be difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:15), but this doesn’t mean that much of it isn’t quite plain. Besides, we have many aids – pastors, teachers, commentaries, concordances - to help us understand.

Scripture was also written to be understood. Therefore, Paul instructed that his epistles be taken to other churches and read. Never did Paul insist that a Doctor of Theology be present to provide the definitive interpretation.

There was never any indication that any of the Apostles ever suggested that their listeners first required a proven system of interpretation before they could understand their message. Had McLaren instead written that much of Scripture presents us with interpretative difficulties, many of us would agree. However, he is skeptical about all interpretive conclusions. If only he was equally skeptical about his own conclusion!

Today, it has become fashionable to believe that we cannot be sure of anything regarding the biblical faith, perhaps apart from the requirement to love. McLaren rhetorically asks, “How do ‘I’ know the Bible is always right?” suggesting that none of us can know. One noted theologian wrote:

  • Any worldview—atheist, Islamic, Jewish, Christian or whatever—ultimately depends on assumptions that cannot be proved. Every house is built on foundations, and the foundations of worldviews are not ultimately capable of being proved in every respect. Everyone who believes anything significant or worthwhile about the meaning of life does so as a matter of faith. We’re all in the same boat.
However, such a stance is logically self-defeating. If it is true that we believe as we do simply based on blind and baseless faith, then this above statement is also a matter of blind faith, and therefore it disqualifies itself.

More importantly, the Bible disqualifies it! Many verses contend that evidence serves as an incontestable basis for faith:

  • Then the LORD said to Moses: "How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them (Numbers 14:11)?
  • After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3)
God does not tell His people to “just believe.” Instead He has provided many unassailable proofs for our faith. This doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle with doubts and uncertainties. Nor does it mean that these struggles are opposed to the faith and must be suppressed. Nor does it mean that God cannot bring great good out of such struggles. He certainty does!

However, Emergents place too much emphasis on the journey and the search and minimal emphasis on the object or end of the search – certainty and assurance regarding God’s truth claims. Emergents normalize and idealize the journey at the expense of the cognitive rest at the end of the journey.

Faith had been such a struggle for me – someone weak in faith and rich in skepticism. It tormented me that I couldn’t find the peace in believing, which others seemed to have found. I therefore would have welcomed the Emergent message that certainty isn’t possible. It would have given me a sense of peace in knowing that I was okay and not a “Christian” misfit. Fortunately, I found little encouragement that skepticism would be my ultimate “resting place.”

Instead, I learned that joyously living the Christian life is not possible without a high degree of certainty. I needed to know that God loved me with a love that transcended understanding (Eph. 3:16-19) and that He had forgiven and cleansed me from all of my sins. I needed the God-confidence often mentioned in Scripture:

  • Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22) 
We require confidence in order to draw close to our Savior and to know that He has drawn close to us. As long as I doubted His love, I could not feel grateful towards Him. Instead, I felt contempt for Him, not knowing with certainty that He truly loved me.  And whenever I felt condemned by my feelings, I felt that God was also condemning me. I needed to know that He wasn’t condemning me and that my feelings were only that –feelings. And that is the very place where Scripture comforted me:

  • Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1)
I therefore can totally embrace Paul’s prayer for the church:

  • I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,  and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:17-19)
Having the knowledge of God and His love for us isn’t an option. Without this knowledge, we will not be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Without this confidence, we will not be able to persevere:

  • So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Heb. 10:35-36; Jer. 7:7)
Without confidence in the promises of God, I wasn’t able to persevere. Even having this confidence, I struggle. However, without it, I couldn’t even begin to struggle.

Paul associated rejoicing with knowing:

  • We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance. (Rom. 5:3)
Without this knowledge - this confidence - we cannot glory in suffering. We can only glory in the midst of suffering because we are confident that God has a glorious purpose for it (Rom. 8:28). Lacking this confidence, I suffered additionally from obsessive and crippling ruminations.

Also, without confidence in Scripture and the fact that we can reliably interpret it, we will not continue with it. Instead, it’s inevitable that we will embrace another source of authority or meaning and become indistinguishable from the surrounding culture. In McLaren’s latest book, A New Kind of Christianity, he poignantly shows us the consequences of his skepticism towards Scripture:

  • I need to say again that nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures do I find anything as horrible as Theos [God].  Yes, I find a character named God who sends a flood that destroys all humanity except for Noah’s family, but that’s almost trivial compared to a deity who tortures the greater part of humanity forever in infinite eternal conscious torment.
How then can we grow in confidence regarding and God’s promises? I can tell you how our Savior slowly and painfully grew me. However, I think it is better to remind you of a simple principle – we can’t do it on our own! I used to think that I could maintain and unilaterally grow my faith. However, He has shown me that I can’t. Instead, He must do the grunge work in our lives:

  • This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:4-5)
  • Such confidence we have through Christ before God.  Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. (2 Cor. 3:4-5; John 15:4-5)
I wish I could boast that my faith will never fail me, but it does and it will. Consequently, my hope is in God alone to keep and restore me. I praise His holy Name!

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