24 November 2010

His own Personal Collected Upanishads

by Frank Turk

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?"

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.
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Went over and read McLaren's post before reading yours, Frank, and it just made me sad. Both the statements from the person on the "theological journey" and McLaren's responses(and of course they're his responses, because answers aren't to be sought after, clearly!).

But from reading that post, I feel like I'm going to sound quite elitist and "fundamentalist", but do these people actually read their Bibles? Do they?? The answers(yes, I said the naughty word!) are there in plain language. Or are we just supposed to ponder how we can best mold God to fit our image? Reading that email and response was just quite depressing.

Anonymous said...


Your question reminds me of something I recently read in Grudem's Systematic Theology, that all Scripture is plain and clear for any man or woman who is willing to seek and submit to God. Doubt and unbelief cloud right understanding.

(See Grudem's sections on 'The Authority of Scripture' and 'The Clarity of Scripture')

AndyPro said...

McLaren is the human equivalent of a run-on sentence, a theological Grandpa Simpson if you will. Dude needs to buy a semi-colon.

But seriously, imagine the level of arrogance it takes to be presented with the Holy Word of God, that which men have fought and died to preserve, and look at it and say, "You know what, I've got a lot of great 're-imaginings' that no one's thought of before". (did that sentence need a semi-colon?)

I'm guessing McLaren believes that the faithful Bible teachers of ages past would have done a lot better had they had a Starbucks.

Thomas Louw said...

“The best way I can reply, since I think the category of propitiation is often defined within an unhelpful and other-than-biblical narrative”
I don’t know anything about the Brian person but, it seems he defines terms very differently than me. His take on being “biblical” very strange but his word play is very fuzzy.
I find him very confusing, what is he saying?
He sounds like some politician trying to get out of a tuff question, while everyone in the room knows the answer

Merlin said...

Preach it brother.

I read his article first, following the rules, and come to this conclusion. You can vote any way you like. That is called free will. Ultimately, if you understand free will at all in the context of Original Sin, McLaren demonstrates exact where that takes you. The only vote that counts is that of Scripture. Isn't that one of the main points of the Reformation?

DJP said...

So good, Frank. Thanks.

Tim Bushong said...

Andypro wroye:

"...a theological Grandpa Simpson..."

To quote Nelson Muntz: "Ha-ha!"

Seriously, great post, Frank. We taught a series on emergent theology a couple of years ago, and this is rock-solid proof that it's just getting worse. Big surprise...

Robert said...


Thank you for giving me something else to be thankful for...not just that he isn't coming to my house, but that God opened my eyes to the truth of Scripture so that I am not doing the same thing McLaren is. And I am thankful for the work of all of the Pyros and and bloggers bringing thoughtful comments. I definitely see the grace of God working through many people here.

Mr. Fosi said...

Robert: "[I'm thankful] that God opened my eyes to the truth of Scripture so that I am not doing the same thing McLaren is."

Can I get an aaaamen?

I was just talking with my pastor about this a few weeks ago. I read parts of the Bible for years.

Matthew, Luke, Genesis, Exodus, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Judges, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc... What do you notice there? All stories and books with imperatives.

I avoided pretty much the rest of the Bible, especially the epistles NT because I didn't understand them and I couldn't find any hard/fast principles there to apply to my life. The exception are imperative one-verse ditties.

It wasn't until I left my previous church (United Methodist), started attending my current church (Christian & Missionary Alliance) and heard Chris Rosebrough (Pirate Christian Radio) that I actually heard the gospel and what it meant.

Once the gospel was preached to me, the Holy Spirit did and is doing a work in me and now the NT makes supreme sense. Just a couple months ago I read through the whole of Romans on my own for the first time I can recall and it blew me away! The idea that we are simultaneously sinners and justified because it is not us but sin in us? That's crazy awesome!

I think I'll hit Hebrews next, but the point is that until the HS does his regenerative work, there's nothing that anyone can do to understand, no matter how much they read their Bible.

Pray that God grants Brian (and everyone else!) repentance and faith, because that's where your understanding came from and it's the only way it'll come to others.

Anonymous said...

As many have said before today, it's at least good that McLaren is not being so shady and cagey anymore, but he's coming right out and saying what he believes.

But still, as sonofthunder7 said, it's really quite sad to see folks going to BM for advice, and reading what he tells them.
It seems much worse than people reading his books and saying "Yessiree, he's finally nailed it".
Much more personally misleading.

Little children and millstones in the sea and all that come to mind.
I wish he would repent, but the deeper he digs the more face he has to lose.

David Rudd said...

i find it sad and instructive to follow McLaren's trajectory over the past five years.

Where he was then didn't have to lead to where he is now. Now we see where a constant need to reinterpret the Bible because it makes you "uncomfortable" will lead.

By the way, this:

"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."

is really funny.

Stefan Ewing said...

Frank, you missed one very important verse in the New Testament where the verb hilaskomai ("propitiate") is also used.

In Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Tax Collector), the tax collector's prayer in Luke 18:13 is generally rendered in English as the generic "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

But in Greek, it is Ho Theos, hilastheti moi, to hamartolo, "hilastheti" (ιλασθητι) being the passive imperative of hilaskomai: "propitiate." So the prayer is literally, "God, be propitiated to me, the sinner."

Although hilaskomai and related words only occur a few times in the New Testament, they show up over a hundred times in the Septuagint:

hilaskomai ("propitiate") some two dozen times, exilaskomai ("expiate" or "atone") a hundred times, and hilasterion ("mercy seat") some two dozen times: the latter being the lid of the Ark of the Covenant where the blood of the goat of the sin offering was to sprinkled each year on the Day of Atonement.

The first two words translate the Hebrew kaphar: "cover," as in "cover one's sins." (The latter translates kapporeth: "cover," as in "lid.") In Greek, it turns out that hilaskomai and exilaskomai are technical terms, which are quite often used in the pagan literature, in reference to propitiation (of the gods) or expiation (of one's sins).

But in the Septuagint, they are almost invariably rendered in the passive voice, so that it is God who is propitiated (rather than we who propitiate Him), and we whose sins are expiated through our sin offerings.

It is God who shows mercy to us by accepting our sin offerings and granting forgiveness of sins—and under the New Covenant, He goes one step further: it is He who actually provides (and accepts) the atonement on our behalf!

Anyhow, it is this prayer ("God, be propitiated to me, a sinner") that the tax collector prayed: a man undone, the scum of society, a traitor to his compatriots, a thief, knowing there was nothing he could do to please God, beating his chest in agony. And it is by this prayer that—in Jesus' own words—the tax collector went home "justified" (verse 14): dedikaiomenos, the same word (in different forms) used by Paul throughout Romans for the doctrine of justification.

Anyhow, what a providential bit of timing this has been, since I have just been doing a word study on this very word—hilaskomai over the last few days!

Stefan Ewing said...

(As an aside, the Publican's Prayer bears a superficial similarity in English to the "Jesus Prayer" ["Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"]—a favourite prayer of emerging types—but in Greek, the latter prayer uses the more generic eleeson ["have mercy," "be compassionate"] rather than the more specific hilastheti ["be propitiated."])

CGrim said...

"...the kind of follower McLaren attracts..."

Yikes, I read the post over there - the email from the questioner was just oozing with pride, pride, pride, and I say that as someone who is no stranger to pride myself.

They get so bogged down in what Augustine had to say that it seems they haven't consulted their Bibles.

"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."

This is very similar to the [intentionally vague] Eastern Orthodox view, isn't it? That Jesus' incarnation somehow fundamentally shifted human nature?

Nathan W. Bingham said...

Thanks Frank.

Aaron Snell said...

What frustrates me more than anything, Frank, is this statement by McLaren:

"I think the category of propitiation is often defined within an unhelpful and other-than-biblical narrative"

because he seems to be trying to position himself on some kind of biblical, faithful-to-the-text high ground, when in fact he shows not the least bit of interest in the text at all. This is the most disingenuous bit of the whole deal, if you ask me. He's a post-modern using a post-modern, deconstructist hermeneutic; yet he tries to one-up the biblical Christian who is trying to let the text determine the meaning of its own words.

This is exactly why he makes the disclaimer that a case could be made for the "traditional" understanding, but thinks the "weight of meaning" is found in his view. What gives his meaning the most weight? HE does. Because it is HIS meaning. The text doesn't give it this weight, nor is that even a concern for him, because in his mind it is an impossibility.

So you go to the text - as you should - but it is not going to gain you any ground against his position until this underlying issue of how he's constructing meaning is addressed, and his illicit attempt to claim knowledge of what is biblical and unbiblical is challenged.

Jacob said...

"...as if it was rush week at Abu Ghraib"

dude, that's Ann Coulter level quality metaphoristry there. And I mean that in a complimentary way. I laughed out loud when I first read it.

Dave .... said...

Nicely cut, Frank. The battle with "change" and "secret messages" and the "real gospel" and the "hole in our gospel" all depart from the central Gospel - "who am I?" and "what am I here for"? Mark 8 has to be the balancing point or everything wobbles from fad to fad. But it takes thought to avoid the influence of wind and waves of doctrine. Thank you for a great post.

Jacob said...

And now that i've read the whole post, bravo Frank! An excellent critique.

slave4Christ said...

This is my opinion of how B.M.responded to the Questions asked of him, and I quote"blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.....
Sorry,but honestly! The man is very fool ish.He is beginning to sound more and more like someone who has been on crack for a very long time. Sorry if this is too sarky but what is there to say about this ..this... train wreck.

donsands said...

"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."

When I read such an insipid answer, -Sorry, I mean response-, to such a direct question about such a profound and holy word, and holy deed of our Redeemer, what can one say but McLaren: Brian McLaren.

mike said...

The Upanishads comment is priceless.

If McLaren were truly interested in the Biblical narrative, perhaps he might try to locate God the Son on Thursday evening before the crucifixion. The fact that Jesus would be the propitiatory sacrifice for our sins is precisely what caused Him to sweat "as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground" (Lk 22: 44) the night before He was crucified. He was not dismayed by any physical torture humans could inflict on Him; He was distressed at enduring God the Father's just wrath against our sins. Those who wrongly deny that atonement was made by the Son to the Father have no explanation for Christ's agony in the garden as He anticipated it.

Cathy M. said...

From my limited exposure to McLaren's writing, I've noted a tendency on his part to rephrase everything into a false dichotomy.

Also, he sounds pouty and bitter. I do pity him.