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A Review of

Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church:

Understanding a Movement and Its Implications

(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 250 pp.


Here is Carson at his best, or his worst, if you are a fan of McLaren and Emergent. In chapter six he directs his attention to two representative books: (1) A Generous Orthodoxy, by McLaren, and (2) The Lost Message of Jesus, by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann. I read A Generous Orthodoxy when it first came out in late 2004 and finally got around to reading Chalke’s book just the other day.


One must understand that what Carson does with A Generous Orthodoxy is precisely what McLaren and other Emergent leaders believe is the primary problem with American evangelicalism. They are weary of (and angry with) what they perceive as the tendency to constantly judge another’s theology as, at best, inadequate, and at worst, heretical. This holdover from Fundamentalism, in their opinion, breeds sectarianism and division and reflects the arrogant “absolutism” of the modernist mindset. You will have to be the judge whether McLaren’s theological aberrations warrant Carson’s sometimes harsh denunciation or confirm the former’s belief that we must move beyond the “who’s in” and “who’s out” mentality of contemporary evangelicalism.


One can’t help but laugh on reading Carson’s initial response to McLaren:


“Though I have never met him, McLaren is, I suspect, a man it is very hard to dislike. There is a humorous cheekiness in him, a disarming self-deprecation, an over-the-top vitality to him. Not least when he is the most outrageous, you simultaneously want to wring his neck and give him a brotherly hug and say, ‘Aw, c’mon, Brian, be fair! That silly argument is unworthy of you!’ – knowing full well he’s likely to hug you back and say, with a twinkle in his eyes, ‘I know that. I’m not quite as stupid as you think. But I got you thinking about some important questions you’ve been ducking!’ What do you do with a guy like that?” (158).


So, once again, I’ll simply list a number of Carson’s more penetrating criticisms.


(1)       Carson is clearly impatient with what he sees as McLaren’s penchant for painting all of confessional evangelicalism with the brush “of the most conservative twig of the most conservative branch” (159). The way he writes, says Carson, “reminds me of the wild pendulum swings of the ‘angry young man’ routine and is merely likely to introduce yet another wobble into churchmanship and theology. At what point is it the responsibility of Christian leaders to try to reflect the balance and holism of Scripture instead of glorying in one’s extremism?” (159). Good question!


(2)       A Generous Orthodoxy is a wide-ranging treatment of numerous theological traditions in which McLaren attempts to draw from the best of each while avoiding their weaknesses. Carson is therefore necessarily selective in his response. He begins with the chapter “The Seven Jesuses I Have Known” and immediately takes issue with McLaren’s understanding (or “mis”understanding!) of the Roman Catholic and Liberal “Jesus”. I’ll focus on the latter.


In McLaren’s treatment of the “Jesus” embraced by liberal theologians he notes how the latter frequently deny some or all of the miraculous deeds recorded in the Gospels. “While I believe that actual miracles can and do happen,” says McLaren, “. . . I am sympathetic with those who believe otherwise, and I applaud their desire to live out the meaning of the miracle stories even when they don’t believe the stories happened as written. (I find it harder to be sympathetic with those who take pride in believing the miracles really happened but don’t seek to live out their meaning.)” Says Carson, “there it is again: another slam at ‘conservative Protestants’ on the way by” (160).


I, for one, am not at all “sympathetic” with those who openly deny the reality of the miracles recorded in the ministry of Jesus. I read it as a blasphemous denial of the integrity of Jesus and the gospel writers and the God who inspired their words. I’ve been an evangelical for over half a century and I must confess I’ve encountered relatively few who go by that name who “take pride” in the fact that he/she believes in the miracles of Jesus. And how can one truly “live out their meaning” at the same time he/she denies that the event ever occurred in the first place? Dare I say that their “meaning” is inextricably tied up with their historical and empirical reality and that apart from the latter the former is vacuous and of little, if any, practical benefit.


Carson takes issue, rightly in my opinion, with McLaren’s belief that the liberal Christian heritage has been more generous and engaged in self-sacrifice and good deeds than confessional, conservative Christians. “Inevitably there are individual exceptions,” he notes, “but numerous studies have shown that confessional Christians, precisely because they are confessional, are more likely to give generously, serve in tough places, build hospitals and schools, run shelters for battered women, and much more of the same than their liberal counterparts” (161). One of the most remarkable things I witnessed during my four years at Wheaton College was the high percentage of students at this conservative evangelical school who devoted countless hours, and some a lifetime, to ministry among the poor, the homeless, and the marginalized in society. I believe it was precisely because of their high view of Scripture and the historicity of the gospel accounts that they so zealously embraced the call to follow Jesus into the hard places and among the most hurting of people.


McLaren also fails, notes Carson, to reckon with the common liberal denial of “irreducible elements of the gospel itself” (161) and the fact that “the influence of theological liberalism as a movement is, quite frankly, pernicious, simply another religion” (161).


(3)       Carson takes issue with McLaren’s use of “evangelical” and “biblical” to describe himself. What he likes about “evangelicalism” is its “passion,” while virtually nothing is said of the basic theological convictions that constitute its identity. One that Carson highlights is the concept of atonement.


McLaren is actually somewhat elusive in his presentation of how the death of Jesus “saves”. He places on the lips of one of his fictional characters a disdainful and distorted understanding of penal substitution: “That just sounds like one more injustice in the cosmic equation. It sounds like divine child abuse. You know?” (The Story We Find Ourselves In, 102). This allows McLaren to not so subtly undermine the doctrine of substitution without implicating himself as one who denies it. Carson is right to point out that none of us has an omniscient understanding of the cross, yet “nowhere in his [McLaren’s] writings (fiction and nonfiction) does he attempt to ground his treatment of the theories of the atonement in the Bible” (168), while at the same time he takes “cheap shots at substitution and other elements taught in Scripture” (168). His point is that “McLaren’s claim to be ‘biblical’ rings a trifle hollow when crucial elements of what Christ accomplished on the cross, as taught by Scripture, are handled so cavalierly” (168).

A brief aside is in order here. Whenever I dealt with theories of the atonement in my theology classes at Wheaton I labored to make the point that all of them are true. Yes, the death of Jesus exerts a “moral influence” on us insofar as it provides an “example” for how we are to respond to unjustified suffering (cf. 1 Peter 2:21ff.). Yes, God is the supreme “moral governor” of the created realm whose commitment to the interests of public law and order was vindicated and displayed in the death of Jesus (cf. Romans 3:25-26). Yes, the death of Jesus conquered evil and was designed to undo the works of Satan (cf. 1 John 3:8) and liberate those held captive by him. Yes, the death of Jesus was designed to restore in mankind the imago Dei (image of God) so horribly defaced (but not destroyed) by the fall into sin. Yes, we see in the death of Jesus his voluntary submission to weakness and identification with the outcast and marginalized of society. But all of these things are true only because his death was preeminently a dying in the place of sinners, enduring in himself (body and soul) and thereby propitiating (1 John 2:1-2; Romans 3:25) the wrath of a righteous God.


Satan was defeated and the imago Dei restored and the effects of Adam’s fall were reversed and God’s righteous rule was vindicated and an inspirational example of love and self-sacrifice was provided BECAUSE Jesus, as an expression of the incomparable love of God for sinners (Romans 5:8), voluntarily suffered the penal consequences of the law of God, the just for the unjust, dying our death, bearing “our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). So long as the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus is retained as foundational and fundamental to what happened on Calvary, we should joyfully celebrate and give thanks for all else that it accomplished.


(4)       “When the horrible and frightening subject of hell comes up,” says Carson, “the same sliding away from Scripture, without quite stating that Scripture is wrong, rises to the surface” (168). Carson is not surprised “that McLaren is not faithful to what Scripture says on the cross of Christ, since he is not faithful to the nature of the judgment from which we must be saved” (169). Carson’s book was released only a couple of months after McLaren’s book, The Last Word and the Word After That, making it impossible for him to comment on the latter’s more explicit denial of the traditional doctrine of hell and eternal punishment.


(5)       Carson cites a statement in which McLaren credits liberals with leading the way on certain ethical issues. Says the latter, “And although the debate has been agonizing, liberals have blazed the trail in seeking to treat homosexual and transgender persons with compassion. Conservatives may follow in their footsteps in this issue just as they have in others, several decades down the road, once the pioneers have cleared the way (and once their old guard has passed away)” (A Generous Orthodoxy, 138).


Every step of this argument, Carson contends, “is either tendentious or manipulative or both” (170). Ouch! But Carson is right. McLaren’s questioning of whether what the Bible condemns is homosexuality as we know it today is typical of those who want to mute Scripture’s voice. The arguments of the pro-gay lobby simply don’t hold up, as Robert A. J. Gagnon’s superlative work, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Abingdon, 2001), more than demonstrates. I had the opportunity to hear Gagnon lecture on this theme at Wheaton and I highly recommend his book to those who want to dig more deeply into biblical teaching on this controversial topic.


Yes, we must treat homosexuals as people created in the image of God, no less so than heterosexuals. Yes, homophobia is wrong. However, says Carson, “I cannot be certain, but I suspect that nowadays there is more danger of homophobia-phobia than there is of homophobia” (171-72). And is it really true that liberals are more compassionate than evangelicals on this issue? No. Certainly they are leading the way in defense of gay marriage. “But if the Bible’s prohibition is taken seriously, it is very difficult to read these movements as compassion. They sound more like unbelief and willful defiance of what God has said” (172).


(6)       There is a lengthy discussion by Carson of McLaren’s decision to call himself “post/Protestant”. I won’t go into details other than to say that Carson finds fault in McLaren’s understanding of both the Protestant Reformation and the nature of contemporary Roman Catholicism, particularly his view of “sacramentalism” and the role of Mary. On the latter subject, Carson is quick to affirm what is admirable in Mary and to denounce any Protestant neglect of her that is inconsistent with Scripture. On the other hand, he says, “I worry no less about people whose appeal to Mary jeopardizes the exclusive sufficiency of Christ, finds in her a mediatrix, or addresses her in prayer because Christ himself seems too remote, people who think of her as co-redemptrix with Christ and as the Queen of Heaven” (177).


(7)       Carson has little patience with McLaren’s “hijacking” of the TULIP of traditional Calvinism. For McLaren “T” will call to mind Triune Love; “U” means Unselfish Election; “L” refers to Limitless Reconciliation; “I” means Inspiring Grace; and “P” stands for Passionate, Persistent States. Carson responds:


“I suppose that having a TULIP entitles McLaren to say he is a Calvinist, for all the same reasons that he is entitled to call himself a Fundamentalist. But I would say to him, ‘If you believe these sorts of things are what the Bible teaches, you have every right to teach and explain and promote and persuade others of them. What you do not have the right to do is suggest that these emphases make you either a Fundamentalist or a Calvinist. Quite frankly, to anyone with a smidgeon of historical perspective, doesn’t this sort of argument simply make you look a bit silly?” (180).


As for Satan, he is not personal. In McLaren’s hands “he becomes a personification of evil, ‘a horribly real metaphor for a terribly real force in the universe’” (181-82). So, beware if you find yourself in the wilderness, fasting and seeking the heart of God. Those ugly metaphors will tempt and test you at every turn! And isn’t it helpful now to know what Jesus really meant when he said to Peter: “Get thee behind me, Metaphor!”


OK. I’ll stop there, lest I yield to sinful sarcasm. I will wait until the next installment to address Carson’s response to Chalke’s book.