Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Repackaging Old Liberalism

Check out this excellent article by Mike Wittmer entitled "Machen or McLaren: A New Kind of Liberalism?" The paper was originally presented to the Evangelical Theological Society.


rmkton said...

gosh darn those liberals....they have everything wrong! I really think all of them are going straight to hell. Again, the fear factor...repackaged. yawn.

(sorry for breaking my promise about not commenting any more on your blog but I just couldn't help myself on this one).

toothdoc said...

Todd, thank you for giving a venue where dullards like myself can be exposed to various viewpoints and theological ideas. The more I learn the more I realize that what I once thought was simply splitting-hairs is really critical to the understanding of salvation. Before I get to my question/concern about pomo/emergent theology, I did agree with one of the statments where he said:
"McLaren worries that we often become so preoccupied with avoiding hell that we forget to do God’s will on earth. As Pastor Dan explains in McLaren’s story, many Christians believe that “This world will soon end, so why worry about justice here and now? All that counts is where you will end up then and there, in the afterlife. Your status there depends on religious piety—on prayer and Bible study and worship, not deeds of compassion and social justice."

I think it is an interesting dilemma. Am I running to the cross or away from hell. Maybe I am simplifying things but does it matter? Do I care if my children obey me because of their undying love for me or because they don't want to get punished. Obedience out of love is obviously more desireable but it also requires more maturity. We cannot remain where we are in our faith, but if salvation is initiated by a desire to avoid damnation, I don't see the problem.

Now for the pomo/emergent theology. Do they see christianity as more exclusive as pre-messianic judaism? How do they reconcile the judgments/blessings of the Old Testament being given to YWHs "chosen people"?

Todd Pruitt said...


Thanks for lifting yourself from the boredom of my last post and offering such a thoughtful response.

Can you believe those silly conservatives? They actually believe that liberalism is a threat to the Gospel. Are they not even aware of such vibrant and Gospel-advancing organizations as the PCUSA, United Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Episcopals, American Baptists, and the World Council of Churches? Liberalism hasn't slowed them down!

Besides, who needs that J. Gresham Machen when you can have John Shelby Spong?

Hopefully with the help of Brian McLaren and Doug Paggit we can finally have a new kind of Christianity that is worth believing...or not believing since it doesn't matter what we believe.

Todd Pruitt said...


I think the statement in your second paragraph is key. Maturity makes all the difference. As we mature our love for God increases. The desire to avoid hell is outshown by love for God. However, the desire to avoid hell is by no means an inappropriate motive.

My experience reading pomo/emergents leads me to think that they consider Christianity merely one way of doing religion among many other acceptable options. They snear at the whole concept of conversion. McLaren has written that you can be a Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim follower of Jesus. So long as you do things that Jesus would do it makes little or no diffrerence what you actually believe. Of course this is completely incompatible with biblical Christianity.

rmkton said...


Did you read Scot McKnight's response to Wittmer's article and Wittmer's repsonse back to McKnight in the blog? I would wish that other evangelicals would be more like Wittmer..i.e. engaging in a more helpful dialogue instead of the "label it...demonize it" approach.

Regarding your last post about Spencer Burke...why don't you ask him why he made such a statement? He is alive and well (as far as I know).

I think when you actually start dialoging with folks like McLaren, Burke, McKnight, etc. you might find more areas of agreement than disagreement....but that would be scary...and we know how liberalism works.

Todd Pruitt said...


I think Burke, McLaren, etc. have expressed themselves quite well in their many books.

Will McLaren & Burke reject their heterodoxy if only I will call them on the phone? Will I embrace Burke's universalism once I get a chance to engage him in conversation?

You act as if it is impossible to understand what these guys believe. Is their writing that poor that they cannot adequately communicate their beliefs?

These men have a very public platform. They are very influential. They also make some very bold assertions. As a Christian and a pastor I am responsible to confront error within the camp. I know you disagree.

rmkton said...

well you are right about one thing...I disagree...but it is probably not what you are thinking.

I don't think McLaren has done a good job expressing his beliefs in his writings...numerous as they may be at this point. This is what McKnight criticized him for in the CT article a while back...yet because he has not expressed himself well I don't think it is a reason to dismiss him out of hand.

If I could give one piece of advice to reach postmoderns it is to engage rather than sandbag. I think that is what Wittmer is doing even though he is critical of McLaren. Will be interesting to see how (or if) McLaren responds...he might.

Mainline Mom said...

One of the pastors of the new church we have been attending gave a sermon about truth and discernment, in which he called out LDS and Jehovah's Witnesses (and some other folks I think) as really not believe in the same God as we do AT ALL. He put it a way I hadn't heard before but made perfect sense...we aren't all on different journeys to the same God...just because someone says they worship "God" doesn't mean God at all. Just because we use the same word does not make it the same thing.

I also agree with Ric's calling out that particular aspect of McLaren's beliefs...as I have (hopefully) matured and as my view of grace has grown exponentially I have also become more "liberal" as I see the MASSIVE lack of compassion in the evangelical church as a whole. I grew up surrounded by evangelicalism and its rules and judgementalism (I went to DCCS) and although I am grateful for that foundation I am all to aware of the lack of grace I often saw in practice.

P.S. I am in no way calling out DC in particular on this...just saying I was fully nurtured in the evangelical environment.

toothdoc said...

Please understand that I am not trying to pick a fight, but I do want to understand better how to communicate with you. In all of your posts on this blog you have been eloquent in your criticism of Todd's statements of his faith and you have been very defensive of the criticisms of men that have written in obvious contravention of scripture. However, you have never come out and stated your beliefs. Do you believe in a God? Is that God omnipotent and omnipresent. Did that God create man with free will? Did that God send His Son Jesus as an atoning sacrafice for our sins? Did that God provide a way for us as human sinners to be redeemed and given everlasting life?

I'm sure there are theological details that you could beat me over the head with. I am not interested in that. What I am curious about is if you are simply a believer like myself and, I think, MainlineMom, who are struggling with the inadequacies of the modern church. Or do you really believe that there are multiple ways to heaven? Is there a heaven or a hell? You keep mentioning a dialogue, the ball is in your court.

rmkton said...

toothdoc, your comment is the type of approach that is needed in the evangelical church towards postmoderns/ emergents...not to label them and demonize them...but rather to engage them.

I think what sets many of us on this quest that leads into postmodernism is a subtle, yet undeniable dissatisfaction with the evangelical church model and its view of "Biblical Christianity". Just to be clear, this dissatisfaction is not your typical one you often hear in the church (e.g. I don't like the music, the preaching, the building, the parking, whatever...) but rather a deeper unsettling one that has to do with questions of faith. I have been an evangelical for over 30 years so I have seen the evangelical church from the inside out...in all its goodness and beauty as well as its ugliness and pettiness...as each one of us are ourselves. However I have found that there is not a good place to express such dissatisfaction within the church...it has been more of a "like it or lump it" attitude...or "please accept this answer that you should find satisfying"...but rarely is...or "let's reframe your question" (albeit into something I am comfortable answering).

For me, and probably for many others, I think postmodernism is an attempt to hold onto to faith and not discard it. It is OK for me not to have all of the answers to the challenges of faith whether that be calvinism vs arminianism, pain & God's sovereignty, biblical interpretation, etc. Honestly if it were not for a postmodern view of faith I think I would be an atheist or at least an agnostic.

So in getting to the heart of your question...what do I believe. I believe in God and in his son Jesus as the basis of salvation but how that is interpreted I am sure is different than Todd's view. I am open to viewing the Bible as a document written by pre-modern men to try and explain a monotheistic, sovereign God in light of the world around them...I know in the theological realm that this is a very liberal view of scripture that I am sure Todd would not agree with. At one point in my life I would have agreed with Todd...yet as I age I find that some of the biblical models we have espoused as timeless do not work any more as our knowledge grows. Some may criticize and say this approach as the "wisdom of men" over and above God's wisdom to which I would respond that assent to this idea requires human wisdom and discernment even with the help of the Spirit.

so my beliefs are evolving...I know that is really scary for evangelicals who feel that faith, in the modern concept, is like a solid brick structure on which to build...from a distance it looks fine but as you get close you observe the cracks, misshapen walls, leaks, etc.

I hope that answers your question...I appreciate your asking.

toothdoc said...

Thank you for the honest response, and Todd please feel free to cut this discussion off - it is your blog. Mike, what I wonder is where a post-modernist stands or, more specifically, what you stand on. Your answer made me think of the every growing body of knowledge in quantum physics. As the knowldege of quantum physics grows, the so-called "immutable laws of physics" are being called into question. If we seek to apply that same rationale to matters of faith, we lose any sense of place. As the great old hymn says "Our faith is build on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness...on Christ the solid rock I stand all other ground is sinking sand. . ." God cannot be God if I can define Him with my knowledge base. He cannot change as I get smarter. He simply is. I pray that you will revisit what is truth. There has to be a right and wrong just as there has to be an up and down. It doesn't change.

rmkton said...

toothdoc, your questions are very like mine were only a short time ago...one thing you need to realize is that most of us (at least in my generation..I am 48) have been taught to think in modernist constructs. For example your question "What do postmodernists stand on?" is a question very much based in modern thought.

There are extremes of postmodernism that any Christian would have to disavow themselves of, even McLaren, (e.g. moral relativism) but they accept that what we "stand on" today may have to change or shift. This really goes against how evangelicals approach scripture and their beliefs. It is certainly outside the realms of conservative evangelical orthodoxy...I will admit that.

Some postmodernists (myself included) think that there must be absolute truth...but with the caveat that we, in our finiteness and limitations, can't know it absolutely. So we build on what we think we know...but always in the back of our mind that it have have to be changed at some point. Postmodernists are criticized by others that say that "in postmodernism the only absolute is that there is no absolutes". While this could be debated on the philosophical level, to dismiss it by the postmodern conundrum misses the point.

I think for the Christian postmodernism helps deal with the difficult questions...of course it raises others too. This is where I think McLaren falls short. He raises some very challenging questions for which (I think) he does not provide good answers. But the fact that there are not good answers does not mean we should not raise the question.

Some of this may sound like philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Todd could probably give you a better explanation of postmodernism than I can...but it would be from his perspective.


rmkton said...

Mainline Mom,

Speaking of tough questions, I have often asked myself how are LDS and JW's any different than Samaritans were in Jesus' time? If you know about the beliefs of the Samaritans compared to the the Jews then you know that the Jews considered the Samaritan faith a bastardization of the true faith... Yet Jesus' treatment of Samaritans in the NT is striking. He does not condone their view yet he uses the label "Samaritan" to reveal the hard hearts and views of the Jews. Does this have any application for us?

Would be interested to hear thoughts about this.

Todd Pruitt said...


It astonishes me that you seem to place more authority in the nebulous category of "postmodernism" than in the Scriptures.

What is postmodernism anyway? It is not new at all. It is a brand of epistomology that is always with us. It is also contrary to Scripture which assures us that we can know the truth.

While our knowlege of the Bible will be flawed because of our finiteness, God nevertheless graciously condescends to us in language that is clear. This is called the "perspicuity" or clarity of Scripture.

To say that knowing and being confident in the truth is strictly a "modern" concept is simply not true. The writer of Genesis would disagree with you. Abraham would disagree with you. Paul would disagree with you. John would disagree with you. Is this list long enough? None of there were "modern" men.

Also, J. Gresham Machen's classic "Christianity and Liberalism" shows quite clearly how out of step with "modernism" is classic Reformed faith. Your equation of Evangelicalism=Modernism does not pass the history test.

Todd Pruitt said...


The fact that we are to be kind to Mormons has absolutely nothing to do with lending legitimacy to their theology.

Jesus was kind to a prostitute who was repentant. His kindness in no way endorsed her sin.

To warn someone who is erring is a deeply loving thing to do. To correct error is loving. To call someone to repentance is loving. Jesus did all these things for Pharissee and "sinner" alike.

rmkton said...

I am not elevating postmodernism above scripture...simply acknowledging that we all see thru lenses or filters whether we realize it or not. To not realize what these are (cultural, linguistic, historical, etc.) is to do a disservice to the text and to its meaning. Clearly our differing views of scripture will lead us to different conclusions.

I don't think I quite said evangelicalism=modernism. But I would say it is certainly infused with it...for example apologetics is a modernistic approach.

I think you missed my point about the Samaritan-LDS/JW comparison...point I was trying to make (maybe poorly) is do you consider Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses your neighbor or are they apostate? can they be both? How do we treat them?...like Jesus shows us in Luke 10 or as Peter does in 2 Peter?

Todd Pruitt said...


Apologetics is NOT a "modernistic" approach. Apologetics comes from the Greek word "appologia" which means to give an answer. Scripture instructs believers to do that. What do you think Paul was doing in Athens?

rmkton said...

modernism has nothing to do with the origins of words. It is an approach marked by reason and rationalism.

My apologies for using the terms and modernism and postmodernism rarely loosely...both of these terms are somewhat amorphous

Harley A. said...

Mike raises a valid question - what does post-modernism mean ? I think one reason the church in general can’t or doesn’t effectively engage it is that (1) Christian people are already so influenced by it they don’t see it as anything out of the ordinary and/or (2) on the other hand, it makes no sense and they can’t understand it. Also, Mike, I’d disagree that, as a 48 year old, you weren’t influenced by it. I’d say you (like all in our generation) were sheep-dipped in it.

As to what does pomo mean – I’ll take a shot. In general, a pomo comes to see history in a progressive manner and views how we interact with most anything as an evolution (dialectically – lots of “conversation”, “dialogue”, “stories”, etc.). Much influenced by the thought of Hegel and those in his camp. They’d say we really, in essence, seek truth by this “boot-strap” process of determination. So, a pomo doesn’t necessarily have to say they don’t believe in truth, but can assert that it is elusive and ever-evolving (which is really to say it ain’t there, but that’s another discussion). Problem is, that this process, on some levels is useful and appropriate – a team of engineers with different knowledge bases working to solve a problem, for example. Problem is, God has not invited us to come to the table and dialectically grapple with His ideas as if we were His equal. He has provided us with the ever-elusive Truth.

Post-modernism and Christianity are like oil and water. We don’t need to engage it – we need to point out the fallacy of it. How can one engage that which cannot be rationally engaged.

toothdoc said...

Mike, Harley and Todd,
Thank you for the enlightenment on this issue. Unfortunately, I believe that this debate will only be settled upon Christ's return (lets start up a post-millenial dispensationalism debate :) Mike, I am truly saddened that you have chosen to depart from scripture. It seems that the minutiae of theology has obscured the overriding truth of the grace of God shown ultimately through Jesus Christ. The cross doesn't change, God doesn't change. Sola fida, sola scriptura.

rmkton said...


I am saddened that you think that I have departed from scripture...I just view it differently now. Actually it has become more meaningful to me now because I don't have to pick it apart line by line, word by word to try and understand it...but view it as a narrative from which I can know God. The Bible is no longer a book to master and defend but rather a beautiful story that shows us the merciful heart of God.

I am saddened that more folks can't see it this way.

Todd Pruitt said...


With all do respect...what are you talking about?

I affirm everything you just said about Scripture. It is the Reformed evangelical tradition that taught me that the Bible is the story of God's redemptive purposes, that it is a beautiful narrative. I was also taught that the Bible is God's truth.

My question is that if it is not reliable then how can you be so sure that it is God's story to begin with?

You are wrong in saying that God's Word should not be defended. When professing Christians begin to say that it is a "wonderful story" but not reliable then what are we to do? Does it not matter if Jesus was truly raised? Does it not matter if Jesus was truly God incarnate?

Mike what is your standard for determining truth? How do you decide what in the Bible is true and what is not? Are these questions that you are able to answer?

Todd Pruitt said...

That opening line should be:
"With all DUE respect..."

Todd Pruitt said...


You are absolutely right. Mike, you, and I were raised in post-modernism. It's always been with us. That is why I am sick of hearing about it as if it some new discovery.

The fact is there is nothing that Bell, McLaren, and Paggit are saying that has not already been said (much more intelligently) by Schleirmacher in the 18th century.

The term "post-modernism" is simply an attempt to make its adherants feel like they have discovered something new. In reality it is just the same old tired liberalism that never really goes away.

I would like Mike to explain the difference between post-modernism and liberalism.

It is a hopelessly flawed epistomology.

To dismiss things like certainty, evidence, and objective truth as hopelessly "modern" is to be ignorant of history. Read Plato, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas and tell me those things are relics of the "modern era". For that matter read Moses, the prophets, and the apostles and tell me things like evidence and certainty are modern, western notions.

rmkton said...


In response to your questions "What is your standard for determining truth? How do you decide what in the Bible is true and what is not?" I will attempt an answer.

First let me address the idea of postmodernism being new. I would agree that the ideas behind postmodernism are not new...they are however affecting the thinking in the greater society (and church)in ways never seen before. Twenty-five years ago how many evangelical Christians had ever even heard of postmodernism or knew what it was? Thus for the mainstream of folks (outside the philosophical/theological realm who discuss such things) it is new. Perhaps our diasagreement on this point is just over semantics over by what we mean by "new".

Now getting to the standards of truth question. In order to get to that question we have to understand what presuppositions we come to the table with in order to find it. You have accepted the conservative evangelical propositional truth about the Bible (infallibility, perspicuity, etc)...therefore this will affect your view of the truth. In other words in your view the Bible is not just descriptive but is also prescriptive. That is certainly a point of view shared by almost all in the evangelical world. But let me share with you another point of view and how I arrived here which I think is just as important. I will try to make an analogy realizing that all analogies break down at some point.

I view the conservative evangelical approach to scripture and faith as a room in which we enter. When we first enter everything is new and we learn a great deal by being in this room. The folks inside self congratulate on the fact that they have found not just A room but THE room and a lot of discussion is around how we have found THE room and everyone else is in a lesser room. These other folks might be in a lesser room but still within the greater Christianity room or they may be outside of that altogether such as other relgions, atheists, etc. After a while in the conservative evangelical room you start to have some problems (some of which I have already explained) but may be related to the view of the bible, pain/evil sovereignty issue, evolution, etc. However, you are warned that outside of this room there is death/destruction or, minimally, a lesser form of belief (e.g. liberalism). Now in reality we all probably know some folks that not only leave this room but also leave the greater room of Christianity. Some (like me) are willing to leave the conservative evangelical room but not the larger room of Christianity. I can value the things I learned in the conservative evangelical room without having to adhere to its every tenet.

So getting back to the standards of belief question...it comes down to what I am convinced of. Now I am sure you will tell me that the position I take is purely personal and therefore inferior to your view of truth (propostiional)...yet I would say that your willingness to accept the propositional truth is a personal decision and involves some level of personal truth as well....even if that is just capitulation to the propositional truth.

If the analogy is too confusing another more easily digestable understanding of my point of view it is perhaps summed up by that great theolgical mind Bono (from U2 not Sonny) in his song "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For". I will assume for the sake of space you are familiar with the lyrics.

OK I am ready for my next beating now which I am sure is to come...


Todd Pruitt said...


Believe me when I tell you I am not interested in beating you. You seem to be someone that I would truly like.

That said, I have a couple of issues:

1. Your statement about the descriptive and prescriptive is in error.

One of the classic principles of biblical hermeneutics is determining whether a passage is descriptive, prescriptive, or both. I know of NO evangelical scholar who takes every descriptive passage in the Bible as being prescriptive as well.

2. You are right about my concern over your epistomology. I appreciate your candor. But your standard of truth saddens me for you.

Since the Bible is not authoritative or accurate in your world then why believe in God? Why believe that He is loving? What is more, why believe in Jesus? I would walk away from Christianity in a FLASH if I held your standard of truth. So would the apostle Paul.

3. While belief in what Scripture says is an issue of faith, it is not a blind or ignorant faith. I find an intellectual, historical, philosophical, relational, and spiritual coherance in the Bible that is unmatched anywhere else.

Also, Scripture teaches that faith comes from hearing the Word of Christ. It is a gift given through the means God has determined. In Acts it is God who awakens Lydia's heart. It is God who caused the scales to fall from the eyes of Paul. In Ephesians two we learn that faith is the gift of God.

Mike, your approach to God's Word will keep you from finding what you truly need. Faith involves a joyful submission to God's good truth. So long as you set yourself up as the final court of arbitration you will be at odds with the God who made you and owns you.


rmkton said...

Todd, I guess I would have to know what you mean by "accurate" to know whether I would agree or disagree with the statement "the Bible is accurate and authoritative". If accurate means absolutely no moved/changed/added text in the entirety of scripture over time then I would say no the Bible is not accurate...again I would have to know what you mean by accurate..."authoritative" is more subjective so if someone asked me "is the Bible authoritative?" I, again, would have to ask what they meant by that. I might be able to agree with that statement based upon what was intended.

What I do believe about the Bible(by faith) is that the Bible is adequate for us to know who God is and what he is like. This is why I still believe in God. This does leave open the question "then what do you accept and what do you reject?"...but I am willing to live in that space without it being well-defined....this is what is so hard for folks.

I know your view of scripture is quite different.

Todd Pruitt said...

I am going to go nail some jello to the wall now.

Of course that depends on what I mean by "nail" and "jello."

rmkton said...

LOL...Todd, I liked your response. we do have to keep our sense of humor about us...of course that depends on what one means by "sense" and "humor"...

Todd Pruitt said...


Hats off. That was good.