I’m a little short on time tonight, but I wanted to get a post up discussing McLaren’s third question and answer, Is God Violent. This is going to be a machine-gun list of some thoughts about his argument.
First, a word about the idea of the “evolution” in our thinking about God. Once again, I’m left worried we’re smuggling the Enlightenment in the back door, and in a huge way. The whole argument for a progressively-more-sophisticated view of God occuring in Scripture, and from its time to the present, is the very definition of chronological snobbery. Those primitives in the past (and also, might I suggest, other parts of the world which still have this view of God) need advanced, civilized Western thinkers like us, with our Hegel and Bacon (or now our Derrida and Foucalt), to tell them how the world really works. While McLaren doesn’t out-and-out say it, the narrative of progress certainly underlies his argument, and as a good postmodern it should worry him more than it seems to.
Second, does the bible have an “evolving” view of God? Absolutely. Things about God certainly become clearer over time. Abraham didn’t have a tabernacle. The Exodus community didn’t have a king. The Prophets didn’t have Jesus. God’s plan develops and becomes clearer as we read chronologically through the Bible. There is a sort of evolution, like that of a seed growing into a flower.
The problem I have with McLaren’s approach is that it’s not actually evolutionary, or at least not the sort of evolution that would cause dinosaurs to become birds or flu viruses to spread from pigs to people. Rather, it’s sort of like the evolution of a mushroom into a fish. In other words, the “developments” he traces (from polytheism to monotheism, from tribal to universal diety, from violence to non-violence, from interventionism to… well, McLaren’s not really clear, but his alternative seems to be God’s creative intervention through non-intervention) are actually reversals. It’s not that we have a clearer understanding of God than ancient Israel. We have the opposite understanding.
In addition, I would challenge him to back up any of his five areas of development with strong textual argument. I don’t have space to do so here, but there are a great many gifted students of Scripture who would argue that God’s mission as expressed there has always been universal, monotheistic, and concerned with the heart. At the same time, they would argue that the New Testament (and Jesus) are still very concerned with judgment and miraculous intervention. I would recommend the Wright duo here – Christopher Wright brilliantly makes the former case (The Mission of God, Old Testament Ethics and the People of God), and N.T. Wright’s take on Jesus, which McLaren says he appreciates, sees judgment as being a central and essential theme of his ministry (read Jesus and the Victory of God; while some might be uncomfortable with the historical nature of some of this judgment, Wright convincingly argues that a good 1/3 of the gospels address this issue.)
As far as his discussion of the right way to read the Bible, Brian advocates a “trajectory” approach. Rather than pick this apart, let me just suggest that it breaks down on two major points. First, as we already noted, Brian’s evolution is not one of similarity but of opposition. If he’s right, then tracing it would not be a line toward the sun (Jesus in his diagram – his many diagrams make me think he would have made a fine dispensationalist), but rather a game of ping-pong. Second, the trajectory of Scripture preserves all sorts of things Brian won’t like. God wipes out the world in Genesis, makes war in the historical books, tramples out the wine presses with the nations’ blood in the prophets, causes stones to fall on people and crush them in the gospels, and tosses the wicked into the lake of fire in Revelation. I grant that many of these passages are using figurative (I would prefer to call it “prophetic”) language, but they’re not metaphors for unicorns and rainbows.
One last note needs to be made at this point, and this is the most painful one for me to write, since as I’ve said, I had hopes that the book would be different. Brian regularly uses extremely strong language to describe the God which certain biblical texts portray – for instance, he says that God in the Noah story is not “morally acceptable, ethically satisfying [or] theologically mature.” In other places, he calls the God portrayed by OT texts petty, tyrranical, misguided, childish, and ineffective. Now, I understand that he proceeds to claim this isn’t how God really is, but let me suggest that we shouldn’t read over such statements too lightly. Suppose, just suppose for the sake of argument, that the God who exists really did cause a flood that wiped everyone out except Noah. Suppose he did those things that Brian doesn’t like, and that he says such condemning things about.
In that case, there’s a word for what McLaren is doing. Now, far be it from me to accuse him of it, but if Brian is wrong, then the God he’s poking his finger at isn’t the type who takes well to blasphemy.