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Brian McLaren’s Why Everything Must Change, and a Reformed Critique: By Austin Britton (Part 2)

8 July, 2008


Now that I’ve exhibited that McLaren’s central dogma is the kingdom of God and that the kingdom argued for is one very much of this world, I’ll now move on to discuss the similarity that this program has with the old social gospel of early 20th Century America, specifically the theology of Walter Rauschenbusch.

First, like McLaren, Rauschenbusch clearly makes the kingdom of God the organizing principle for the rest of his theology.[1] Rauschenbusch claims, “If theology is to offer an adequate doctrinal basis for the social gospel, it must not only make room for the doctrine of the kingdom of God, but give it a central place and revise all other doctrines so that they will articulate organically with it […] this doctrine is itself the social gospel.”[2] Rauschenbusch sees the kingdom of God as having had a theological backseat to other doctrines throughout the history of Christian reflection, and he seeks to recover the centrality that it had because Jesus gave it this centrality (In this discussion, Rauschenbsuch sounds very similar to McLaren when he writes on wanting to rediscover the Jesus of the first century).[3]

Secondly, Rauschenbusch has a similar definition of kingdom of the God. However, more so than McLaren, Rauschenbusch seeks to assert the divine side of the kingdom saying it is, “divine in its origin, progress, and consummation. It was initiated by Jesus Christ, in whom the prophetic spirit came to its consummation, it is sustained by the Holy Spirit, and it will be brought to its fulfillment by the power of God in his own time.”[4] Yet in spite of this, Rauschenbusch quickly moves to affirm the immanent side of the kingdom, so much so that it overshadows his statements about the kingdom being divine and transcedent. Rauschenbusch writes,

the kingdom of God is not confined within the limits of the Church and its activities. It embraces the whole of human life. It is the Christian transfiguration of the social order. The church is one social institution alongside of the family, the industrial organization of society, and the State. The Kingdom of God is in all these, and realizes itself through them all […] the greatest future awaits religion in the public life of humanity.[5]

This is exactly what McLaren is saying in EMC. The kingdom for both Rauschenbusch and McLaren must be realized within this space-time reality, and God is seen as being hyper-immanent among the whole of human life, so that there is no kingdom to come, there is just global revolution to strive after. Both writers want Christianity to bear upon public life and be the harbinger of great change and revolution in the civil sphere. Primarily then, the kingdom is about ethics. And as such, Christ is the prime example of earthly citizenship in a new world order.


First, as stated earlier, it must be said that these two theologians are to be criticized more for what they deny than for what they affirm. Many of their statements regarding the centrality of the kingdom to Jesus’ preaching, the inauguration of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ coming, and the redemptive quality to the kingdom regarding individuals are much in line with traditional Reformed theology. However, it is the fact that both theologians seem to deny any kind of other-worldly character to the kingdom which is contrary to the Reformed view which affirms both the already character of the kingdom with the not-yet character of the kingdom. They rightly criticize those who advocate an abandonment from the present world because of the world to come (known as the “eschatological” school of the kingdom), yet in doing so they deny wholesale a future cosmic event which will consummate the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus’ first coming.[6]

McLaren and Rauschenbusch do well in wanting to see the holistic character of the kingdom of God, yet they do this by simply rejecting the future character of the kingdom. As Ridderbos correctly says, “It is remarkable that the gospel does not itself explicitly distinguish between the kingdom now and the kingdom later. It only says in one place that the kingdom of heaven has come, and in another passage the kingdom will come. And it is often very difficult to ascertain whether the kingdom is spoken of in the present or in the future.”[7] To be sure, it is difficult to reconcile all the statements Jesus makes about the kingdom, however, it is an a priori assumption by McLaren and Rauschenbusch that Jesus primarily is speaking of a social, ethical, and non-future reality, and thus they deduce more difficult passages with this assumption.

In addition, the discipline of Biblical Theology is woefully lacking in both theologians’ work. Rarely does either one get outside of the gospels and see Jesus’ person and work in light of its OT context, and in light of the later Pauline expositions of it.

So, what is the best way forward for Brian McLaren? This paper suggests that McLaren would do well to incorporate into his theology a doctrine of common grace. In regard to the covenant of common grace God made with Noah Michael Horton writes, “It is a peace treaty with the whole creation. We will not find here, however, a promise to redeem sinners or to reconcile them to him through the gift of his Messiah […] it is a promise to uphold creation in its natural order, not to release it from sin and death.”[8] It seems this doctrine would be of great theological purchase for McLaren in that it makes peace with the creation and it grants common grace to all peoples saying that even the unregenerate can be legitimate contributors to society. Yet, one problem for McLaren may be that it does not promise to redeem all. Contra McLaren’s kingdom, the doctrine of common grace upholds the distinction between the sacred and the secular. In addition, it calls for Christians to be engaged in the world through love of neighbor and not be quarantined off from the world like those who McLaren is reacting against. Also, this doctrine recognizes the present reality of the kingdom as being exercised in the church through word and sacrament ministry, and makes room for both the church gathered and the church scattered in its theology.

McLaren needs not abandon the framing story of traditional Christianity when it is properly defined, but he should abandon Rauschenbusch’s program which he tediously follows (whether he knows it or not), and he must quit seeing the gospel as primarily a social movement that has Jesus as a supreme example of overturning the evil empire. Indeed, a lot of what McLaren longs for to see change will be changed once Christ returns and eradicates the ethical problem of sin in the new creation. God’s kingdom doesn’t need any new metaphors such as the sacred ecosystem posited by McLaren. Rather it must be seen as what it truly is, a glorious eternal kingdom with God as king and his people as vassals in unhindered fellowship forever. If McLaren wants a social revolutionary he should write books on Barabbas but not about Jesus. Jesus Christ was the God-man, the messiah, that lived and died for his elect and accomplished the penal substitutionary atonement his people need to have restored fellowship with the living God. If McLaren continues to stay on his present trajectory, it will have Reformed theologians sounding the monotonous gong of H. Richard Neibuhr’s famous condemnation on liberal theology: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[9] McLaren, like the first-century Jews, must choose either Jesus or Barabbas, one may pray that he begins to side more with the former rather than the latter.


[1] Although this is admittedly anachronistic to present Rauschenbusch’s view in light of McLaren’s, I thought it fitting seeing how McLaren and other Emergent theologians do not consider themselves associated with old liberalism. In addition, the Emergent theologians of our day do not build upon Rauschenbusch nor do they want to be seen as doing so. Presenting the ideas in this way I thought would show just how much they are related.

[2] Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, 131. Italics are mine.

[3] It is also interesting to see the corollary between Rauschenbusch’s building on the theology of Schleiermacher and the NT scholarship of Albrecht Ritschl (in setting Jesus in his first century context), and McLaren’s appropriation of the theology of John Franke and NT scholarship of N. T. Wright. I couldn’t find either one quoting an OT scholar!

[4] Rauschenbusch, Social Gospel, 139.

[5] Ibid., 145.

[6] To demonstrate the Reformed agreement about this point, note Herman Ridderbos who critiques this eschatological school by saying, “This eschatological school had its merits, for it stripped the New testament concept of the kingdom of God of the modern ideas of the Enlightenment, which had been the model for the concept ‘kingdom of God,’ conceived by the liberal theology. Yet the eschatological interpretation, in its exclusive and consistent form, is absolutely untenable, because it is the denial of Jesus’ self-revelation as the Messiah in whom prophecy has been fulfilled and salvation has come. And for this reason the exclusively eschatological interpretation leaves no room for the kingdom in its real and beneficent presence.” In Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, translated by H. de Jongste, edited by Raymond O. Zorn (Philadelphia: P & R Publishing, 1962), 104.

[7] Ibid., 105.

[8] Michael Horton, God of Promise (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 114.

[9] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1959), 193.

  1. Jeff permalink
    8 July, 2008 5:33 pm


    I hadn’t seen this post yet. Nicely done. It is helpful to see the ways that McLaren’s theology is largely a reiteration of an extremely modern project. This despite his embrace of the postmodern.

    Just one question. While Jesus’ primary purpose on earth certainly wasn’t the kind of social revolution that McLaren advocates, is it safe to say that there wasn’t a bit of the revolutionary in his actions? Surely, he was revolutionary in the way he interpreted the Scriptures. I take your point that Jesus is the God-man, and it is with divine authority that he gives the correct interpretation of the OT to his Pharisaical detractors. But from a human standpoint he was radical, though not a political agitator like Barabbas. While McLaren would like to see political revolution in his far-too-imminent view of the kingdom, Jesus “revolutionized” the way his disciples understood God, redemptive history, and their own need of Him for reconciliation and redemption.

  2. 11 July, 2008 11:22 am


    Indeed, I think it is fair to say that Jesus’ actions contained a revolutionary side to them. I think it is imporatant to properly define and qualify what one means by “revolutionary.” McLaren’s view of Christ’s actions as “revolutionary” seems a bit misguided to me.

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