Brian McLaren, “Is Jesus the Only Way to What?,” Part 3

As I demonstrated last week, Jesus says that the disciples will actually be “where” He is going. That’s more than simply a spiritual sense. Being first century Jews there is more to the context and hence the understanding of the disciples which comes from what we now call the Old Testament.

The Wisdom of God

Craig Keener connects the notion of the way to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament:

“The LXX of Isaiah (30:11, 21; 33:15; 40:14; 42:24; 48:17; 58:2; 63:17; 64:5) and other biblical tradition [sic] (e.g., Exod 18:20; 32:8; Deut 8:6; 9:16; 10:12; 11:22, 28), especially the wisdom tradition, also apply the image of the ‘way’ to the way of righteousness and wisdom. In both biblical (e.g., Isa 55:7-9; 56:11; 59:8; 66:3) and early Jewish sources, ‘ways’ refer to behavior, as in the rabbinic use of halakot. ‘Ways’ as behavior represents a usage that would be understood in John’s circle of believers (Rev 15:3).”1

Keener continues,

Because John envisions Jesus as the embodiment of divine Wisdom (1:1-18) and because the moral use of “way” was the predominant figurative use of the term, it is highly probable that this image constitutes the primary background for “way” in 14:6. In this case the “way” is no longer purely ethical but christological. This image also sharpens the claim of christocentric exclusivism, for the Jewish wisdom tradition portrayed morality in binary terms: one walked in ways of righteousness or in wickedness (e.g., Prov 4:18-19; 10:9, 17; 12:15). Jesus is the sole adequate revealer of God, for he alone knows God fully (3:13; 6:46). The image of a new exodus, if in view, would also point in the same direction.2

The important point here is that the Old Testament wisdom background forms the context in which the audience most probably would have understood the use of the expression ‘way’ (hodos). Jesus is the wisdom of God, and to know Jesus is to know the way, that is, the truth about the way to life for, as He said, “I am the way [hodos], the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). Jesus had already told them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way [hodos], he is a thief and a robber” (Jn. 10:1). Prov. 14:8 connects wisdom and the way: “The wisdom of the sensible is to understand his way, but the foolishness of fools is deceit.”

There are three important words that are translated “wisdom.” Hokmah, is the most frequently occurring word translated “wisdom.” It is the term most frequently used in Proverbs and indicates a proper grasp of the basic issues of life and the relationship of man to God. This kind of wisdom involves the ability to discern between good and evil and the ability to live prudently. This word is used in Ex. 28:1-3 to describe the skill of a tailor, and in Ex. 31:2-5 it is used of the ability of a metal craftsman. (1:2, 7; 2:6, 10). The wise man receives instruction and will grow by it (10:14; 12:1) he is teachable: the wise man is a righteous man (14:6, 16; 13:5; 22:21-22): he is humble (15:33): he is self-controlled (14:29 calm spirit; 29:11 slow to anger): thinks before he acts (14:8; 15:2; 19:2): forgiving (19:11). Binah, usually translated “understanding,” indicates the ability to discern between the truth and falsehood. It includes the ability to realize the long-range good as opposed to the immediate gratification of the moment. This word is related to the preposition bîn which means “between.” The root idea is the insight to make distinctions. (1:2, 4:1). Tushiyyah, translated “wisdom” or “success” indicates the ability to grasp divine truth and how it should be applied to life. (Pr. 3:21, 8:14).

Jesus is all this and more. He is the wisdom of God. To know Jesus is to understand the basic issue of life and how to have a relationship with God—hokmah. To know Jesus is to be able to make distinctions between what false religions claim and the truth about how to have a relationship with God—binah. To know Jesus is to grasp the divine truth of how to have a relationship with God and it apply this truth to one’s life—tushiyyah. When Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me,” Jesus is purposely connecting Himself with the background of wisdom tradition to reveal to His disciples, and to us, that the way to righteousness and wisdom is Jesus—it is faith in Him. This is the only way to the Father. Don’t let McLaren fool you. His claims are just as exclusivist as anyone else’s. He is claiming that if you don’t understand the way he understands, you are wrong and going the wrong way.

IN or OUT?

McLaren takes pleasure in trying to show us that we should not be occupied with the question of who is in and who is out. Of course McLaren always assumes that whoever asks such a question is concerned only about whether others are out and we are in:

“We want to know with clarity exactly who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out.’ Our preoccupation gives rise to the uncomfortable suspicion that some of us won’t be as happy being ‘in’ unless sufficient numbers of people are ‘out.’”3

It does not seem to occur to McLaren that maybe we ask these questions because we are concerned about our own eternal destiny, not with keeping anyone out and perhaps even (heaven forefend) really desire to see those who are “out” brought “in.” McLaren always assumes the worst when he is talking about Evangelical and/or Fundamental Christians.

McLaren displays a decided double standard when he employs the same kind of approach. He writes:

“But Jesus gives us not the in-and-out information we may want, but what we actually need: he assures us that we don’t have to understand everything as long as we trust him, and the vision of the Father we receive through him.”4

Of course this is just as much an in-and-out statement as any other. You are in “as long as we trust him”: but what about those who don’t trust Him? According to McLaren, you are in if you trust Him, and you can have the “vision of the Father” only if you are in. Notice he says:

“If we trust him, then, we will have what we need, even though we may not have all the answers.”5

Of course the corollary of this is that those who don’t trust will not have what they need. McLaren will accuse me of concentrating on the negative, but what this shows is that for all of McLaren’s effort to denigrate those who are concerned with being in or out, McLaren is doing exactly the same thing. Basically he is substituting his in-and-out qualifications for the in-and-out qualifications others promote. The difference is, McLaren attempts to disguise what he is doing. He misrepresents his in-and-out qualifications as if they were not in fact in-and-out qualifications.

He claims that his approach to Jesus’ statements capture the true message as opposed to those who don’t, and you are in only if you accept his account. In other words, we must trust Jesus and be content that McLaren understands what is going on even if we don’t. No one denies the need to trust Jesus, but why should we trust McLaren to have all the answers? McLaren says we should trust Jesus:

…even though we may not have all the answers. That includes conclusive answers to our persistent curiosity about who is in and who is out.”6

Why is it illegitimate to need to know whether I am in or out? Should I not be concerned with my eternal destiny? Why does McLaren assume that my need to know is some kind of curiosity and not a legitimate need to know the truth about my own eternal destiny?

In support of his understanding of the text, McLaren asserts:

“This kind of question, by the way, may receive the same answer Jesus gives to Peter seven chapters ahead: What is that to you? You follow me! If we stop looking for information apart from Jesus and instead focus on trusting Jesus . . .”

But why should anyone think that asking about whether I am in or out is information “apart from Jesus”? Of course it is always a good practice to quote something that sounds like it supports your cause when in context it has nothing to do with your claims. Such is the case of McLaren’s quote of Jesus statement in Jn. 21:20. Peter’s statement had nothing to do with whether John was “in or out.” And why should we think that Jesus is not concerned about our questions? In fact, are not we commanded to make our calling and election sure?:

Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble;” (2 Pet. 1:10).

The point here is that we should be eager to confirm that we are in and not out! How do we do this? Peter says:

“For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins” (2 Pet. 1:9)

To what “qualities” is Peter referring? To those he just mentioned:

“Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love” (2 Pet. 1:5–7).

These are the qualities that should characterize the person who has been called unto salvation by God. Notice for McLaren these qualities have nothing to do with whether you are in or out, and yet for Peter, having and exhibiting these qualities is the basis upon which a believer makes his “calling and election sure.” In other words, whether they are in or out. Peter is not saying that you are saved because you have these qualities and you are not saved if you don’t exhibit them. Peter is saying that you confirm (bebaian poieisthai, lit. “firm to make”) that you have been called and elected by God. Otherwise you walk around like a blind man or a shortsighted man not knowing whether you are a child of God or not! And for Peter, that’s not the way you should live. You should know that you are “in” and you should confirm that you are “in.” McLaren makes into a vice what Peter commands us to do.

McLaren warns us that we should not be “preoccupied” with the question of who is in and who is out. Rather, we should “focus on trusting Jesus,” as if these are contradictory actions. Why can I not do both? But, according to McLaren, if we focus on trusting in Jesus:

“we will obey his commandment to love one another, and we will do great things . . .”7

But ought we not to obey the other commandments in God’s word, like the one Peter gave us to make our calling and election sure?

Where Are You Going?

At the end of his presentation, McLaren comes back to the initial question: “Is Jesus the only way?” McLaren’s response is:

“It depends on where we’re trying to go. If we want to abandon the earth as a lost cause and evacuate upward to heaven as soon as possible, I suspect we’re going in a different direction than Jesus.”8

But who claims such a thing? And why does McLaren have to distort the simple question? Because he cannot give a straight answer without exposing his actual belief that Jesus is not the only way to the Father.

McLaren quotes Phil. 2:5–11 and then says:

“Jesus’ movement is downward. Heaven to earth, earth to humanity, humanity to servanthood, servanthood to suffering and death.”9

But then he conveniently ignores the rest: death to the grave, from the grave to the highest exaltation: “God highly exalted Him,” and where He is, we will be, if we trust Him. McLaren writes:

“He doesn’t teach us to pray, ‘May we go to heaven where your will is done, unlike earth,’ but rather, ‘May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as in heaven.’”10

But again McLaren doesn’t give us all the information. He ignores what Jesus goes on to say:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 5:19–21).

This is not a suggestion or a request—this is a command. McLaren wants us to get earthy and to “set our direction so that we seek to move down with him . . .”11 But according to Jesus, the direction is down only because ultimately the direction will be up, up to where the Father is, where He is, and where we will be if we trust Him. McLaren is like Enoch the son of Cain. Cain was condemned to wander, but instead he built a city on the earth. He called the name of the city Enoch, after his son, because that is the ultimate destiny of those separated from God. I want to be like Enoch, the descendant of Seth. Enoch walked around on this earth with God, but his ultimate destiny was in heaven with God. God took him. Do you want to build a city here on earth as your home, this earth, which will be consumed by fire? Or do you want your home to be in heaven with the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, where neither moth nor rust corrupts? Then you had better be concerned about whether you are in or out. And remember this . . . Jesus is the only way!

1 Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 940.
2 Ibid., 941.
3 Brian McLaren, his “A Reading of John 14:6,” (accessed May 30, 2008),13.
4 Ibid
5 Ibid
6 Ibid
7 Ibid
8 Ibid, 14
9 Ibid
10 Ibid, 14-15
11 Ibid, 15

© 2008
Thomas A. Howe, Ph.D.
Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages
Southern Evangelical Seminary


Comments

Brian McLaren, “Is Jesus the Only Way to What?,” Part 3 — 2 Comments

  1. In “everything must change,” McLaren says, on page 43-42, “Sincere spiritual seekers would attend my church, and they asked me questions I didn’t have answers for–at least not satisfying answers.” McLaren, being a Christian pastor, is admitting right here that the answers he did find– and I’m assuming he found those in the Bible on which Christians base their belief–were not satisfactory to him. In short, the Bible to McLaren is not sufficient.
    We can thus go forward knowing that what McLaren is offering is nothing more than opinion based on his presumptions that he can use the Bible as a foil for his own preferences and agenda. He writes with blinders on, seeing only what he wants to see and ignoring everything to the contrary. Just as Howe pointed out that McLaren, too, is saying something exclusive, it can also be pointed out that McLaren deals liberally with absolutes, something McLaren faults the “Conventional View” of doing.
    If McLaren has a new “story” to tell, it would be nice if he would just tell it, without trying to re-write Scripture. It seems rather spineless to me that McLaren can’t simply come out and say what he wants to say without clinging to the life-raft of appearing Christian, while the entire time gloating that it is his very intent to sink the ship.

  2. Don, thanks for posting these. Now a message for Tom Howe:
    Hello, Tom! Your former OT, Hermeneutics, and Biblical Languages Overview student thanks you for this 3-part response! It is really excellent. It opens up the scripture, enriches my understanding, and skillfully refutes McLaren’s document, which I read (the whole thing, as McLaren requested). I knew there were problems in what he wrote, and I was able to spot some of them, but was nowhere able to give a response remotely like yours.

    I have putting links to these responses in my email updates to people on my list, and urging them to read McLaren’s document and your responses!

    Thanks again and God bless,
    Marcia

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