A Conversation about Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity
Responding to Brian McLaren’s Question # 3: The God Question
Welcome: You’re reading “Part 5” of my blog series responding to Brian McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity (read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here). Many have engaged Brian’s thinking by focusing on a systematic theology response (visit here for a boatload of links). My focus is on pastoral theology or practical theology. As a pastor, counselor, and professor who equips the church for biblical counseling and spiritual formation, I’m asking: “What difference does our response to each question make for how we care like Christ (biblical counseling) and for how we live like Christ (spiritual formation)?”
Does the Bible Need Therapy?
Brian’s third question is the God question. Is God violent? He’s asking, “Why does God seem so violent and genocidal in many Bible passages?” “Is God incurable violent,” Brian asks (p. 20). In the asking, we see that for Brian, the Bible’s view of God needs to be cured. The Bible needs therapy. Now that’s a new slant on “biblical counseling”!
Some may argue, “Wait a minute, Bob. Brian’s only trying to cure our false images of God, not the Bible’s false images of God.”
I’m sorry, that’s simply not true. Using his idea of the Bible as a “library,” Brian is honest enough to state, “But I have to admit that there are problems in the Bible as library too. Real problems. Big problems” (p. 98). He says that as a serious reader of the Bible he’s uneasy because of “images of God that are also found in the Bible—violent images, cruel images, un-Christlike images” (p. 98). That’s Brian in his own words.
God in Brian’s Image
In biblical counseling and spiritual formation, we talk about what it means to be created in God’s image. In A New Kind of Christianity, Brian talks about what it means to create God in our image. That’s God in Brian’s image.
So how does Brian counsel and cure the God portrayed in the Bible? How does one do spiritual formation on the Bible’s God? How does Brian help the God of the Bible to become more Christlike?
Brian takes an evolutionary view of the Bible’s portrayal of God. “I begin to see how our ancestors’ images and understandings of God continually changed, evolved, and matured over the centuries. God, it seemed, kept initiating this evolution” (p. 99).
This entire section reminds me of the 1996 book God a Biography by Jack Miles who saw God in evolutionary terms. For Miles, God began his life as a socially-inept child, matured into a socially-awkward adolescent, and finally grew up relationally as he stumbled upon how to love—learning from the prophets how to relate!
To be fair, unlike Miles, McLaren is not saying that God grew up and got better. He is, however, claiming that the Bible’s portrayal of God grew up and got better. “Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors’ best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God. As human capacity grows to conceive of a higher and wiser view of God, each new vision is faithfully preserved in Scripture like fossils in layers of sediment” (p. 103).
God in Jesus’ Own Words: WDJS
Is this what God says anywhere in Scripture? Does Jesus anywhere indicate that He has a problem with the Old Testament view of God? Brian says he’s trying to properly honor Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God—as the living Word who teaches us the meaning of the written Word. Great. Show me the message. Show us where Jesus takes issue with anything written in the Old Testament about God. WDJS: What Does Jesus Say?
It seems like this is a case of everyone doing and believing what is right in their own eyes. Who gets the last word on the best view of God? When applied to God, this is the essence of idolatry—creating images of God in our own image.
God doesn’t need a bailout. He doesn’t need a “Personal Recovery Act.” The biblical presentation of God doesn’t need an Extreme Makeover! God doesn’t need new PR.
Practical Implication # 1: Our Image of God’s Holy Love
These issues are vital theologically and practically. In biblical/Christian counseling and spiritual formation, nothing is more important than our image of God. Jeremiah 2:5 explains that it is because of faulty, light-weight views of God that we commit spiritual adultery. Jeremiah 2:19-25 notes that when we lose our awe of God, we become attracted and addicted to false lovers of the soul. The very center of biblical counseling is a biblical understanding of Who God is.
In Soul Physicians, I explore the biblical image of God as a God of “holy love.” While our finite minds can never capture the infinite attributes of God, numerous biblical passages combine God’s holiness and His love as a way to communicate something of God’s perfection. Holy love communicates God’s transcendence—He is holy and far above us, sovereign and in control, King and Lord. Holy love also communicates God’s immanence—He is loving and near us, affectionate and caring, Father and Friend.
Brian seems to object to the “holy” side of God. Of course, the Old Testament repeatedly presents, in perfect harmony, God’s holy love. We can’t dissect God and pick and choose what aspects of His infinite, eternal being are acceptable to us. This is true not only because that would be the epitome of sinful arrogance, but also because God’s attributes aren’t dissectible. He’s not “holy” now, and “loving” later. In everything He ever does, His infinite being always works in perfect harmony. God is forever and always simultaneously holy and loving.
Practical Implication # 2: Spiritual Conversations and Scriptural Explorations—Trialogues
The heart of biblical/Christian counseling involvement beats around the concept of “trialogue.” In biblical counseling, we don’t preach at people (“directive” counseling). Nor do people come with all the answers that we simply draw out (“non-directive” counseling). Rather, in the personal ministry of the Word, we practice “collaborative” counseling. We not only dialogue, we trialogue. In every counseling situation, there are three parties: the counselor, the counselee, and the Divine Counselor through the Word of God and the Spirit of God. (See Spiritual Friends for literally 1,000s of examples of trialogues).
Of course, we can’t have a trialogue, only a dialogue, if every passage is up for grabs. A dialogue is the essence of secular therapy—two people exploring life together using the resources of human reason alone. By their very definition, pastoral counseling, biblical counseling, and Christian counseling involve two people exploring together from a shared reservoir of agreed upon theological principles and faith practices.
So picture what happens if we get to pick and choose what portraits of God we like.
“So, Evan, as you work through your grief, could we explore how David candidly lamented his losses in the Psalms?”
“Oh, sorry, Bob. I don’t believe that David got God right. We’d have to go to another passage where I think the view of God is highly enough evolved to apply to my life today.”
Now, we certainly could beneficially engage Evan in spiritual conversations regarding his beliefs about the Scriptures and God. Vital issues, indeed. Which is my point—unless and until we accept the Bible’s view of itself and of God, we’re doing “pre-counseling.” Or perhaps even evangelism or apologetics—all worthy ministries.
But can we do biblical counseling and personal discipleship when one or both parties dismiss the Bible’s view of God? Remember, we’re not talking about disagreements surrounding how to interpret passages that we believe are authoritative. We’re talking about the belief that the Bible does not present accurate images of God. Doesn’t such a belief preclude biblical discipleship? If not, what is the definition of “biblical” counseling and “biblical” discipleship?
The Rest of the Story
In our next post, we explore the Jesus question. Brian asks, “Who is Jesus and why is He important?” Nothing is more important. What does a biblical counseling perspective offer that can be essential in this ongoing conversation?
Join the Conversation
How could you do biblical counseling using Brian’s view of the Bible and of God?