thoughts in response to “Brian McLaren’s Contextualization of the Bible”, by David Hesselgrave, in Evangelical Missions Quarterly (EMQ), January, 2007
in part 1 of this series, i give the background for why i’m posting this series. and in part 2, address hesselgrave’s opening thesis that approaches like being provocative, mischievous and unclear, or messages that embody or precipitate shock, obscurity, playfulness and intrigue have no place in the communication of ‘divine truth’. this, i contended, was dismissive of the vast majority of jesus’ teaching, and certainly of jesus’ communication style and methodology. and in part 3, i briefly looked at hesselgrave’s concern about mclaren’s definition/theology of mission, as well as my frustrations with hesselgrave’s definition/theology of mission.
and now, pointing out a massive perspective difference…
at the end of the “mission” section, hesselgrave, summing everything up, writes this:
but the fundamental problem with mclaren’s view of mission and his missiology is not just hermeneutical; it is epistemological. because he does not begin with biblical theology, mclaren’s “reflections on mission” turn out to be “refractions of mission.” given this approach to mission/missiology, how do we really know what the christian mission actually is? or even that we christians have a mission at all?
i found this fascinating. i suppose it could be due to the shortness of the article, which, if i’m trying to be fair to hesselgrave, doesn’t allow him much space to elaborate on some of these time-release grenades he’s dropping. but it’s fascinating to me that hesselgrave (as learned as he is) doesn’t even hint that these few little sentences are at the very heart of the shift we’ve been experiencing for a few decades (a shift hesselgrave seems dead-set against). it really makes me wonder if hesselgrave is even aware of his own perspective on this. i’m thinking not: he seems to see his argument as objective biblical truth, and mclaren’s as subjective opinion.
but let’s start here: hesselgrave is correct that the issue is epistemological; but he doesn’t seem to realize that he’s put his finger on the carotid artery of the modern/pomo debate. his assumptions are that we can know objective truth (more pointedly, his assumption is that he is writing objective truth, or at least naming it). if that assumption is/were true, his conclusions would be logical.
in other words: he assumes it is possible to start with pure, objective, taint-free biblical theology, which has nothing to do with culture, or the interpretive lenses we bring to scripture or the development of that theology. if this were possible, it makes sense — logically, naturally — that our missiology would flow out of that unchanging, unadulterated Truth. missiology becomes the ‘practical theology’ that flows out of objective ‘biblical theology’.
for those in the emerging church (again, i have no ‘right’ to speak for the entire emerging church, and it is somewhat ludicrous to do so, since there is no centralized repository of ec theology. but in general…), epistemology starts with the assumption that we automatically and unequivocally bring our own lenses (perspectives, experiences, cultural norms and expectations, biases, hopes, technology, psychology) to scripture. As such, we don’t have access to truly and completely objective Truth. there is still plenty of truth, but there is a realization that there’s a subjective element to it. (while this completely freaks out many who almost see it as heresy, it really does nothing to undermine my faith one bit. just the opposite: it bolsters my faith. because my faith is not built on logical arguments, it is built on the revelation of god in scripture, in my life, and in other places and people.) with this assumption, we go to creation as a critical starting point for our narrative, which becomes an anchor point of doing theology (and really, an anchor point for living). we form a ‘biblical theology’ of identity (who i am in relationship to god) based on our understanding of creation. this, in turn, informs our mission (and missiology), which, in turn, informs our understanding of truth, and/or our biblical theology. and, to take it a step further, postmodern theologians would argue that hesselgrave is doing the same thing – he just doesn’t realize it or want to admit it.
n.t. wright, in the christianity today interview with him (in the jan07 issue of ct), says, “it is possible to say more or less all the orthodox christian affirmations, but to join them up in the wrong story. it’s possible to tick the boxes that say trinity, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, spirit, second coming, and yet it’s like a child’s follow-the-dots. the great story — and after all the bible is fundamentally a story — we’ve got to pay attention to that, rather than abstracting dogmatic points from it. the dogmas matter, they are true, but you have to join them up in the right way.”
later in the interview he says, “what happened with the enlightenment is the denarrativization of the bible.”
mission, then, requires starting with the narrative, not the dogmas.
3 thoughts on “hesselgrave and mclaren and mission, part 4”
I have one problem with the following statement:
The word is “almost” – and if you subjectivize truth, how is that not heresy? What part of scripture is non-negotiable if there are subjective elements to truth? Like you, marko, my faith is not built upon logical arguments, but upon God’s Word. “Your word is truth.” (John 17:17). But if that doesn’t necessarily man that God’s word is truth, and that it could mean that it is pseudo/subjectively-true and not objectively true…then we have nothing.
Heresy is a big, dangerous, and important word. But if subjectifying the Word of God and the truth of the Word of God is one sure fast-path to heresy.
I am not sure if what is meant is that the Word of God is subjective or it’s just a simple acknowledgement that our interpretation of the Word is less than objective. Personally I’d think it’s the latter.
Marko, I’m not familiar with Hesselgrave or McLaren’s writings; however, I have some familiarity with the modernist-postmodernist debate that speaks to some of your thoughts.
To the Christian who is uncomfortable with the idea person’s claiming to know Truth I would like to offer the following suggestion. Even though we do not have a God’s-eye understanding of the Truth, we can trust God’s ability to give us a clear understanding of Truth, that is at least reliable enough to die for. I believe the current reluctance to trust Truth claims is a feature of three modernist characteristics: the reduction of God to a premise, making too much of an abstract distinction between faith and reason, and the arrogant attitudes of some Truth tellers.
When I followed the modernist’s rationalism back to its early sources I found that God was used to support reason and then set aside. As long as God was at least assumed as a premise in their arguments, Descartes and Kant could show that reason could lead us to truth. As I see it, the problem with these modernists was not in their reliance on reason to find truth, it was with their implication that God is only needed as a premise in their arguments. We need God as a Father, Healer, Companion, Comforter, and Teacher, not just as a premise. God has shown himself to be a capable and faithful communicator to the (fallible ) child who takes His words at face value. I am therefore confident that absolute truth is available (not because of our infallibility but because of His love).
Next, I think the faith/reason divide that seems to be a presumption of the modernist-postmodernist debate presents a false dichotomy. We reason both to and from faith. My knowledge of God is increased by both experience and reason. I think faith and reason are inseparable in actual persons. To the person who says faith rests on logic I would ask “What motivates you to reason?”. To the person who says faith is not built on logic I would ask “How did you conclude that?” We are mislead by our mental abstractions when we claim the priority of either. Neither stands alone.
Lastly, some postmodernists rightly express a concern about the lack of humility that sometimes accompanies Truth tellers. I think it is a valid concern that needs to be addressed. However, I believe humility is more often the result of reflective revelation then the result of persuasive reasoning. The form of persuasive reasoning I have in mind here is the claim that we cannot know Truth. Emphasizing the limitations of human reason may be one way to undercut the unnecessary burdens imposed by arrogant Truth speakers, but it also breaks the strength of the humble person’s trust in the Truth in God’s word. My experience is not that Truth is inaccessible, but that half truths are ill-fitted to carry the weight of God’s glory. God has given us many absolute truths, but we tend to proclaim those loudest that make us most comfortable. For this reason, I believe the fault lies not so much with a overconfidence in the certainty of some truths as it lies with how those Truths are sometimes used to shackle person rather then set them free.