The hardest part of this blog post for me is going to be the introduction -- because, like Rick Warren, what hasn't been already said about Brian McLaren? I mean: is there anything really interesting to say about McLaren anymore? Unlike Rick Warren, McLaren isn't actually a Christian -- he's some kind of neo-Bahá'í-ist or Bhakti Krishna-ist with an interest in the Christian narrative as it relates to his own personal collected Upanishads. And the more he speaks, the less likely it is that he's going to come back around to the Christian faith which he allegedly started in before he got so wise.
So it came around on Twitter on Monday -- while I was in the middle of a killer post which was an open letter to President Obama about human dignity on the eve of Thanksgiving day as it relates to TSA agents treating any American citizen who wants to get on an airplane as if it was rush week at Abu Ghraib -- that McLaren gets e-mail and respond to it from time to time. For me the comedy begins right at the start as the title of the post is "Q & R: The Propitiation Question". That's right -- "Q & R", not "Q & A" because of course it's not very humble to have "answers", only "responses".
That said, I'm going to skip the bulk of the post because it will do for another time when I have more time to unpack the kind of follower McLaren attracts. Today we are going into the woods to follow papa bear to his cave and see what's actually inside there. The meat of the post goes like this (McLaren in BLUE; his fan's letter in RED):
So what is your straight, non-sidestepping, no-holds-barred take on "The Propitiation Question?"Just to grind an axe here briefly, a watchblogger would here just snort about how important "propitiation" is and stop his feet that abandoning it as "unhelpful" is just heresy, which is why the church is shot to Hell, etc. Whether that's true or not doesn't depend on some apologetical log falling in the woods with the hope that someone will hear it go "Oomph" with proper reformed footnotes.
The best way I can reply, since I think the category of propitiation is often defined within an unhelpful and other-than-biblical narrative, is in the form of some questions:
1. Who was the primary audience for the suffering and death of Jesus? Was it intended to bring about a change in God, or in us? Since I don't think God needs to change, but rather we do, I'd vote for the latter.
2. Where do we centrally locate God the Father on good Friday - in and with the political and religious leaders, condemning and torturing Jesus? Or in Jesus, suffering injustice with and for us? Again, I'd vote the latter.
3. Does Jesus, in some mysterious way, absorb/redirect the hostility of God towards us, or the hostility of us towards God? Again, I'd vote for the latter. (I think this is what C. S. Lewis was after in his idea of "the perfect penitent.")
In each case, perhaps a case could be made for the former; there are ways we could say there is truth in the former. But I think the weight of meaning is found in the latter option. Many people see everything from within the conventional narrative and so they can't even imagine Jesus being important apart from it, and that's a major reason why, I think, they are so adamant in defending it. I'm sorry you have suffered so much rejection for raising honest questions ... my heart goes out to you. My hope is that you will be able to avoid what Paul called "fruitless quarrels," and by your questioning, challenge people to deeper and higher perspectives. It's not easy, I know, but it is important. You're in my prayers today.
Someone trying to actually diffuse this ticking mess, however, would do a little leg-work first. You know: what is the "propitiation question?" Why does McLaren care, and why should you, the reader, care?
To answer the first question, so to speak, the "propitiation question" is this: in the ESV, for example, the word "propitiation" is used 4 times -- Rom 3, Heb 2, 1 John 2, and 1 John 4; the KJV does not use the word in Heb 2, but that's their loss. It's in place of the Greek word "ἱλαστήριον" (thx, greekbible.com), and also for the word "ἱλασμός" - both of which refer to "a means of appeasing (God)", the former often used to refer to the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant where the blood of the sacrifice had to be spilled. So the question comes up, "What is the meaning of 'propitiation' in the New Testament as it relates to Christ?"
And it's funny: if you read the 4 places I have mentioned here where the word "propitiation", you can probably answer that question. I mean, if our real concern is, as McLaren says here, is to find "the weight of meaning," some reference to the actual narrative and the actual story or the story's own explanation of itself might do. So in Hebrews -- which is a great example of early actual-Christians reading the teleology of Christ for the sake of knowing how to live in the story they find themselves in -- we find the writer saying this:
It's obvious, of course, that he didn't go to all this trouble for angels. It was for people like us, children of Abraham. That's why he had to enter into every detail of human life. Then, when he came before God as high priest to get rid of the people's sins, he would have already experienced it all himself—all the pain, all the testing—and would be able to help where help was needed.[Heb 2:16-18, MSG]Or better yet, if we read the actual translation of that passage:
For surely his concern is not for angels, but he is concerned for Abraham’s descendants. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. For since he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.[Heb 2:16-18, NET]or the one you probably have in your iPad:
For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. [Heb 2:16-18, ESV]I mean: there's no question here. There's an answer which says something like this:
God is helping somebody -- and it's not angels but people like Abraham. And the kind of help he's giving is not good counsel or even good therapy -- it's the kind of help a priest would offer in the temple of Solomon where what is at stake is sin and what needs to be done has to satisfy God's requirements.
So the answer to the "propitiation question" is given at least once in Scripture is not that everything must change, or that there is a secret message to uncover on your own: it is that Christ's explicit goal in this world was to suffer and die because God requires it of Him for the sake of those he came to save.
While I think and believe this, I didn't invent it. I'm not inserting my paleo-orthodoxy into the text of Hebrews. Christ Himself makes a big deal of this to the Disciples:
And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they told him, "John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets." And he asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Christ." And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.Now look: before we get to the punchline in Mark 8 here, the Disciples get it right and identify Jesus as the Messiah. And this would be a great opportunity for Jesus to redo the Sermon on the Mount if his objective was to teach them that His death was really about a "change in them," or about they themselves "suffering injustice" or what have you.
Instead Jesus finished up with this:
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man." [Mark 8:27-33, ESV]Right? I mean, Jesus is intent that his life's purpose is to die and be resurrected -- and that when Peter says that's too much to really accept, he tells Peter that he's thinking about this all wrong -- he's doing Satan's work by saying that the death of Christ is a teaching we ought to rebuke. And this is why McLaren cares about this: because he is personally thinking about the things of man, as we can see in the questions he asks.
So when we think about McLaren's clever question #1, we can point out that regardless of what he thinks about God's immutability -- which is not the question -- there's no denying that human beings are brought from life to death by Christ's death. The problem is that McLaren doesn't believe man needs changing -- he admits he's very happy and comfortable with the Pelagian view that man just needs to obey because he can. The Bible is clear that man needs changing -- and the way that God changes men is by the work of Christ. Trying to say that is is not the traditional view is dishonest of McLaren and a kind of pandering to his anonymous fan's biases against those who are trying to call him back to orthodoxy and good faith.
And when we consider his question #2, he simply ignores the cry of Christ: "My God, why have you abandoned me?" If God the Father is on the cross, why does Christ believe he is abandoned? Voting for another choice is simply ignoring what Christ says himself -- which is a screwy hermeneutic for a red-letter Christian.
Finally, when we consider his question #3, McLaren has simply not read Hebrews with any seriousness, or any of the Old Testament, or even the book of John for that matter. He's simply a spiritual pundit opining with regard to his own feelings and impressions -- so at least in that respect, we should be glad he calls these his "responses" and not his "answers".
With that, be thankful tomorrow that Brian McLaren is not coming to your house for the meal and the family reunion, and enjoy instead the bounty which you will receive through Christ our Lord.