Brian McLaren and the Unknowable Gospel

Brian McLaren recently jumped into the fray of the Love Wins fracas by offering an interpretation of Albert Mohler’s interpretation of Rob Bell’s interpretation of the gospel.  That may sound like an odd way to make a contribution, but if you’re Brian McLaren, offering an interpretation of someone else’s interpretation is actually the best thing one can do.  So I will attempt to enter McLaren’s world and offer an interpretation of McLaren’s interpretation of Mohler’s interpretation of Rob Bell’s interpretation of the gospel as explained in his book Love Wins.

Are you with me?  Good.

One of the principle charges McLaren brings against Mohler is his misinterpretation of Rob Bell’s interpretation of the gospel.  McLaren argues that Bell is not trying to offer a version of the gospel better than the one we have in the Bible; rather, Bell is trying to get us to see past all the “imperfect versions or approximations of it” in order to “be bound to that original story rather than to a popular (perhaps the most popular in some settings) version of it.”  McLaren is working on the assumption that Bell has greater insight into the original story than most throughout Christian history.  For thousands of years, we have unfortunately been victims of shoddy interpretations and static interferences of what Jesus actually said and did.  Both McLaren and Bell, on the other hand, assert that the “original story” is better than what we have allowed it to be due to our inaccurate approximations.

But my question for McLaren is, “How do you know this?”

McLaren follows up with this amazing assertion:

Our versions (mine included) are all, then, human interpretations of the gospel of Christ and the apostles, and human interpretations of the original message are not exactly the same thing as the original message. Some are more true to the original and some less, but no articulation of the gospel today can presume to be exactly identical to the original meaning Christ and the apostles proclaimed.

So McLaren’s logic goes something like this:

1.  No one can know the original meaning of the gospel
2.  Therefore, we are only left to human interpretations of the gospel
3.  Rob Bell is offering a better interpretation than what has been afforded to us

What McLaren does here is attempt to pull a Copernican Revolution on the gospel, taking the playbook from Immanuel Kant’s epistemological framework.  Kant said there is the world of the noumena (“the thing in itself”), and there is the world of the phenomena (the thing we experience through our senses and observations).  We can never truly know the noumena because there is this impenetrable wall between the two worlds of what things really are and how we perceive them to be.  Human knowledge, therefore, is restricted to interpretation while the noumena is forever unattainable or truly knowable.

McLaren has just told us that the gospel is unknowable (“no articulation of the gospel can presume to be exactly identical to the original meaning Christ and the apostles proclaimed”).  The gospel, the thing in itself, is beyond our reach of truly being known.  Therefore, we are left to our own interpretations of the gospel.  [In case you are wondering, this is not only Kantian, but this is also a key component in the theological argument for soteriological pluralism espoused by John Hick and his compadres, namely that God (“the Ineffable Real”) cannot be truly known, and therefore all the religions of the world are simply human interpretations of the Real.]  Therefore, the best we can do is have a close approximation of the gospel based on our observations of what we think is the meaning of the gospel.

The same question brought before Kant must be brought before McLaren. How is it that you can know what is unknowable? This is a question Kant could not legitimately answer, and I am quite confident, McLaren cannot answer as well.  McLaren posits a claim that only one who has access to what is inaccessible can make.

But we must proceed further. On what basis can McLaren or Bell say that their interpretation of something truly unknowable is better than someone else’s interpretation of the unknowable? After all, Rob Bell has gone on record saying that the gospel and eternal life lie “firmly in the realm of a speculation.”  Is an interpretation working on the assumption of speculation reliable?  Why would people want to rest eternity and their souls on an interpretation grounded in speculation?

Ah, but here’s what’s even more fascinating to me.  McLaren is upset that Mohler claims to have a right interpretation of Bell’s interpretation of the gospel.  Yet, what makes McLaren so confident that he has a right interpretation of Mohler’s interpretation of Rob Bell’s interpretation of the gospel? Of course, if McLaren has access to the noumenon, then perhaps he access to the mind of Mohler.

There’s something even more sinister than who has the right interpretation of who.  According to McLaren, the gospel is unknowable in itself.  According to Bell, it’s a matter of speculation.  Now, what kind of God would have a plan of redemption and execute it to perfection but then choose to make it unknowable? It would be cruel and evil for God to leave us to our interpretations in hopes that we might come close to the real meaning of the gospel.  And yet, it is the charge of a cruel and evil God that McLaren and Bell have of Him judging wicked rebels and sending them to everlasting punishment in a literal hell.

What McLaren and Bell are doing is wicked.  Yes, wicked.  They are taking what God has made known and turning it into a mystery.  They are making God’s revelation of His Son, and God’s right to interpret His own acts in redemptive history a matter of speculation.  And they are in essence saying that God’s interpretation of the Gospel (as explain in His inerrant Word) is unreliable at best and unknowable at worst.

While Bell may have not made his thinking clear (ambiguity and obsfucation rule the day), God has not left the gospel with an eternal question mark.  God has given us clear, understandable, direct revelation in Scripture.  He has made His mind known as He has made His Son known.  To make the claim the gospel is not knowable, is to say that Jesus is not knowable, is to say that God is not knowable.

If the gospel is not knowable, then what is the purpose of the gospel?
If the gospel is not knowable, then why should make it a matter of proclamation?
If the gospel is not knowable, then why should we have any confidence that any of us are ever saved?

You see, in an effort to make the gospel universally broad, they have made the gospel universally inaccessible. Ironically, while they wish for the salvation of everyone, the sad reality is that everyone loses.

And when everyone loses, it does not matter who interprets what because God has not spoken.

The good news is that God has spoken so that we don’t have to live in Brian McLaren’s world of interpretive one-upmanship or Rob Bell’s speculative questioning.  The good news is that God has not left us to our own interpretations of the gospel, but has given us a Word–a Word made flesh who said:

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3).

At the end of the day, the issue with Brian McLaren and Rob Bell is not Albert Mohler, Timmy Brister, or the so-called imperfect versions of the gospel.  Their issue is with the God of the gospel and His Word in which He has made it known.  An unknowable Gospel is an affront to the God of self-revelation who, with his omnipotent word, calls everything into existence and completes all that He purposes that His glory may be known in all the earth.

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11 Comments on “Brian McLaren and the Unknowable Gospel”

  1. Trevor Peck Says:

    Excellent article and argument brother. But no doubt, you have simply “misinterpreted” what he said. *sigh*

  2. Justin Says:

    I had the same reaction to McLaren’s post.

    The interpretation framework betrays him, as you have skillfully shown. Reminds of me of elephant and blind men analogy. The problem with the analogy is that there is one all-knowning observer who tells us there is an elephant. McLaren is claiming to know there is an elephant, while still trying to maintain that he’s blind. Utterly ridiculous.

  3. Adam Says:

    Well done, Timmy. Nicely thought out and timely release.

  4. Zach Nielsen Says:

    Great post bro. Very important.

  5. Apparently my WordPress dashboard isn’t working, which means your comments may or may not go through. I apologize for this, and I hope it is fixed soon.

  6. Leo Says:

    There must be several passages missing from McLaren’s Bible. Such as John 1:18, Romans 1:19, 1 Corinthians 2, Ephesians 1:9, 3:4-6, Colossians 1:26-28, Hebrews 1:1-4, and all of 1 John.

  7. This is the kind of post I’ve been hoping to see from you since this Rob Bell issue has come to the fore.

  8. Love it brother. And where is the Holy Spirit in all of this for McLaren? This is the God who created all things, yet somehow He can’t get the message to us today?

  9. When you focus and concentrate all on your own knowing of the unknowable all you get is some tummy thumping naval contemplations. Both Bell and McLaren seemed to be indulging in this meaningless pastime. Prejudicial preferences have set the agenda, and the result is the chimera of no Hell. All who have suffered unjustly at the hands of mad monsters called human beings would receive no justice under that system of delusion. Yuck!

  10. freddy Says:

    This is devastating. What role then does the Holy Spirit have? Was he not given in order to lead us into truth and an understanding thereof? Is he not the one who opens our eyes to the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ?” Do we not have “the mind of Christ”? Are we not now of the Spirit, the one who “comprehends the thoughts of God”? Have we not received the “Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God”? Is 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 hogwash? If the gospel is unknowable, let’s hang it up. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

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