A Take on McLaren

As many of you know I try to stay abreast of the Emergent(ing) church literature, and I’m particularly interested because it is both a real divorce from traditional Protestantism and also a natural and unsurprising outgrowth of traditional Protestantism.  I’m been paying particular attention to Vintage Church author Mark Driscoll’s heated disagreement with the authors Pagan Christianity.

The issues brought up by McLaren and Co. require a response, even if, like me, one responds by making them irrelevant.  That is to say that I became Orthodox and the new vision of “what the Gospel means to us today”,  “organic” Christianity, and “rediscovering” the historic Church was replaced by something solid and formative, rather than something McLaren and/or I form.

Something similar is said by Fr. Gregory Jenson on the AOI blog.  It’s self-admittedly strongly worded, but I think he’s getting at something.

McLaren is not presenting us with a new kind of Christianity but simply a re-working of Evangelical Christianity. While he claims his work is post-modern, it isn’t. For that we should look to the works of John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and David Bentley Hart. Read these theologians and the intellectual and spiritual poverty of McLaren’s work and the emegent church movement is clear.

Whatever good points there might be in his re-working, in the end McLaren’s “new kind of Christianity” demonstrates the inherent and internal theological and spiritual weakness of the Reformation in general and of Evangelical Christianity in particular. That weakness is the weakness of a merely partial faith, a faith that is not orthodox (or Orthodox) because it is not catholic (or Catholic) and not catholic (or Catholic) because it is nor orthodox (or Orthodox).

While I respect Milbank and Hart, I don’t believe that they are the best to contrast against McLaren.  Certainly one could say the same about Luther, Calvin, Newman, and Chesterton.  One could say the same about Ben Witherington or Pope Benedict.  I’m tempted to say the same about Tim Keller. The contrast here is between the Church and McLaren’s vision of the Church.

Viewed in this light, the debate about McLaren, the emergent church movement and a “new kind of Christianity” is the theological equivalent of intramural flag football. You got a lot of guys on the field but none of them are particularly fit or skilled. And certainly none of them play at a professional level.

To push the analogy just one more step, the professional level that McLaren and his critics merely imitate, is the catholic tradition of theological orthodoxy of the Church Fathers and the sacramental, liturgical and ascetical practice of the historic Christian Church. Whatever our differences, this tradition is to be found in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.


5 thoughts on “A Take on McLaren

  1. Thanks for the link and your comments.

    In one sense I agree with you about Milbanks and the rest. To be sure there are better theologians out there–and you names several of them! My point however was not simply to compare McLaren simply with the great sweep of theological thought but to point out that even within his niche (i.e., postmodern theological scholarship) he doesn’t bring much to the table.

    This of course begs the question, as you point out, whether or not Milbanks et. al. bring much to the table themselves. I find the radical orthodoxy school intriguing–but I certainly would not recommend a steady diet of it.

    To offer an analogy, the film of the 20’s and 30’s were the work of artists well read in the classics of western literature. The films since then are the work of artists who watched the films created by the men who read the classics. Something like that is happening with radical orthodoxy and the various Evangelical Christian attempts to respond to postmodernism. The work is interesting but ultimately I think it will fail.

    The response to sin is never simply thinking. Rather our response must be to grow in holiness. It remains to be seen whether, even with the limits within which it operates, if holiness is the aim of the emergent church movement.

    Again, thanks for the link and the comments.

    In Christ,


  2. Fr.,

    That makes lots of sense to me, and I agree that McLaren is certainly not the best in his niche. But then again, I don’t know why many Christian authors are so successful when other more competent ones are not. Why is McLaren so influential? Why are so many looking towards the McLarens and Donald Millers for direction?

    I like your analogy with classic American films vs. contemporary ones. Again, it brings up the distinction between what the masses want (consumerism) and good art/books. Good art is good art, but not in a vacuum. The works we need should be both vernacular and moving the vernacular towards the transcendent.

    Is this where the Millbanks and DBHs have failed? Or is it simply PR that they need?

  3. Jesse,

    Thank you for your kind words.

    Thinking about your question, I’m not sure how influencial McLaren really is. The internet and the relatively low cost of airfare has certainly made it easier (and cheaper) to promlugate his teachings but I’m not sure how much of an effect he is having on others. If anything, I think it is probably more the case that he is more a symptom of a growing indifference–and even hostility–in Evangelical Christianity to serious theological and historical study. Though I’ve not read his book,*The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,* based on the reviews I’ve read and Mark Noll’s articles, there does seem to be an increasingly anti-intellectual current among Evangelical Christians.

    Regarding Milbanks and DBH are not sure that they are NOT having an influence. *Radical Orthodoxy, A New Theology,* which is a collection of essays edited by Milbanks was only published in 1999. So were talking about an approach to theology that is not even 15 years old. That’s not even 5 minutes ago in Orthodox time!

    More seriously though, I do think part of the problem (at least in the Orthodox Church) is the relatively lack of sound catechesis in the parish and the relatively poor education of the clergy. At most we require a priest have an MDiv but we do not require any educational prerequisites beyond a bachelors degree. We ordain men who simply do not have the necessarily educational background in the humanities to study theology. This hurts us.

    Well, let me end here.

    Thank you again for your kind words.

    In Christ,


  4. Father Gregory,

    Two questions just arose for me. First, do you think Milbanks’ approach to theology is what we should be pursuing? To what extent do you think “Radical Orthodoxy” is Orthodox (or orthodox) and/ or leading towards it?

    Second, and more interesting to me, is that you seem to have a pretty good idea of how you want to see Orthodox clergy and laity interact with the current American “theological” scene. I have qualms about encouraging any of my high school Church School kids to jump into the fray, because I see it as mostly fruitless. Yet I am torn, because there is some good in interacting with the milieu, and certainly the need for *some* Orthodox presence in academia. I’m just not sure how to strike the right balance.

    The problem is exacerbated in practical sense when we look at sending our kids off to University. Often the best we can do is leach off of good Evangelical schools like Wheaton or Biola, where our presence is troublesome, or conservative RC schools where the situation isn’t much different. Yet starting an Orthodox college is in many ways, a bad idea.

    I’ve asked some people about this (Met. Jonah, Fr. Pat Reardon)and they said they weren’t sure what to do. Though both of them made it clear that they were not afraid of “secular” education, they just wanted good education.

    So I’m curious to hear more about how you see the future of the Orthodox presence in higher education (particularly in the field of “theology”).

  5. Jesse,

    While I’m interested in Milbanks and radical orthodoxy and admire their willingness to respond to modernity & post-modernity, I do see any general need for Orthodox scholars to pursue similar research. I’m interested in Milbank’s criticism of the social sciences but that’s me!

    How Orthodox, or Orthodox friendly is RO? I’m not sure–I have a sense that, especially in matters of sexuality, it isn’t Orthodox at all. But God works with the human heart in His ways not mine.

    As for education, I’m pretty committed to a strong liberal arts education especially for clergy. Bioloa’ program has much to recommend it. SO does Thomas Aquinas College and the University of Dallas (my undergrad college).

    An Orthodox college would be a great idea–we have Hellenic College but I’m not impressed with the education–it doesn’t seem to me to be as well grounded as what I had at UD or what I’ve seen at Biola.

    What we need is something very much like an Orthodox Bioloa, UD or Thomas Aquinas. At UD my professor and my confessor were often both the same man. My philosophy professor might be the priest who celebrated Mass on Sunday and I went to Holy Communion with my history professor. ALl in all, an educational experience very much patterned after Benedictine monastic life: Prayer, Study and Work where all part of the equation.

    This is just me, but the Church in America finds herself called to minister to people who don’t know their own Western intellectual tradition, much less the Gospel. Me I would like to see us educate people in the canon of the Western tradition (philosophy, theology, literature, etc.) AND Orthodox theology.

    As theology as an academic disciple–there’s a place of it to be sure–but we also need, and maybe need more, men and women who can bring the Gospel to bear in all areas of academic study as well as the professions. Me, I do a fair amount of my own research in the social and human sciences–it’s not theology in the academic sense but it is valuable nevertheless I think.

    Well those are my off the top if my head thoughts.

    Thanks for asking. 🙂

    In Christ,


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