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The Gist of Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy [1]

Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (2004)

Brian McLaren is probably today’s most widely-read ‘progressive evangelical’. Surprisingly he’s never attended classes for credit in a theological institution, nor has any ordination qualifications from a bona fide denomination. ‘Rather I am a lowly English major who snuck into pastoral ministry accidentally through the back doors of the English department and church planting’ But he’s very widely-read, writes in a racy, readable manner, and is au fait with modern, post-modern, and post-postmodern thinking. He’s honest, and the key reason he’s ‘progressive’ is that he rates ‘orthopraxy’ (right behavior) over ‘orthodoxy’ (right thinking).

A Generous Orthodoxy is a book I wish I’d written. Below is my summary of his seminal ideas:

From John Franke’s introduction: The term ‘generous orthodoxy’ was coined by Yale theologian Hans Frei, to help move beyond the liberal/conservative impasse. It connotes a rejection of both liberal and conservative certainty/universal knowledge resulting from a commitment to Enlightenment Foundationalism. (The liberals constructed theology upon the foundation of unassailable religious experience; the conservatives looked to an error-free Bible. So a generous orthodoxy is ‘post-liberal’ and ‘post-conservative’ – to foster the pursuit of truth, the unity of the church, and the gracious character of the gospel). Jesus Christ is the center of the Christian faith. This faith, as Lesslie Newbigin articulates it, is exclusive (the revelation in Jesus Christ is unique, but not in the sense of denying the possibility of salvation to those outside the Christian faith); inclusive (refusing to limit the saving grace of God to Christians, but not in the sense of viewing other religions as salvific); pluralist (acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but not denying the unique and decisive nature of what God has done in Jesus Christ).

McLaren does not covet the last word – his aim (at times) is to be ‘provocative, mischievous, and unclear’ for the purpose of encouraging readers to think and enter into the conversation themselves.

Hans Frei: ‘Generosity without orthodoxy is nothing, but orthodoxy without generosity is worse than nothing.’

McLaren’s Introduction: ‘You may not be a Christian and wonder why anyone would want to be. The religion that inspired the Crusades, launched witch trials, perpetuates religious broadcasting, presents too-often boring and irrelevant church services with schmaltzy music, baptizes wars and other questionable political programs, promotes judgmentalism, and ordains preachers with puffy haircuts, sappy answers to tough questions, and other adventures in missing the point – it doesn’t make sense to you why anyone would want to be “in” on that.’

‘My deepest passion isn’t for church people: it has always been for those outside the church’. A friend said every new Christian should be equipped at baptism with a manure detector (not his exact words), because there’s plenty of it around the church world, and I agree.’

‘A Generous Refund: For Mature Audiences Only’. ‘This book consistently, unequivocally, and unapologetically upholds and affirms the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.’ But [a generous orthodoxy moves us] ‘in the direction of identifying orthodoxy with a consistent practice of humility, charity, courage, and diligence – [linking] orthodoxy with practice ‘so that no one could be proud of getting an A in orthodoxy [and a] D in orthopraxy, which is only an elective class anyway.’ Trinitarian opinions that do not lead to divine adoration are worth little.’

‘A generous orthodoxy’ while never pitching its tent in the valley of relativism, nevertheless seeks to see members of other religions and non-religions not as enemies but as beloved neighbors, and whenever possible, as dialogue partners and even as collaborators.’

The labels ‘exclusivist, inclusivist or universalist’ on the issue of hell will find here only more reason for frustration – these terms easily become ‘weapons of mass distraction.’

‘So this book is for Christians (or former Christians) – evangelical, liberal, Catholic, whatever – who are about to leave (or have just left) the whole business because of the kinds of issues I raise in this book. And equally I’m writing for the spiritual seekers who are attracted to Jesus, but they don’t feel there’s room for them in what is commonly called Christianity unless they swallow a lot of additional stuff.’



‘I am a Christian because I have a sustained and sustaining confidence in Jesus Christ.’

The Conservative Protestant Jesus with its ‘metaphors’ about the Cross – legal, economic, government, military – but ‘none of these completely explains how the death of Jesus brings good news to the world: the full answer includes and yes eludes all these metaphors, analogies, and diagrams.’ [This Jesus] can tend to become something of an abstraction, necessary for the solution to my legal problem with God the Judge, but somewhat removed from daily experience apart from guilt removal.

The Pentecostal/Charismatic Jesus tends to produce ‘two easy-to-distinguish classes of Christians: Spirit-filled tongues-speakers and everyone else.’

The Roman Catholic Jesus: ‘If conservative Protestants focus on the way Jesus initially saves individuals by dying on the cross, and Pentecostals focus on the way Jesus continues to save individuals by giving the Holy Spirit, Roman Catholics focus on the way Jesus saves the church by rising from the dead.’

The Eastern Orthodox Jesus was introduced by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (‘Beginning to Pray’, Paulist, 1988). ‘The Eastern Orthodox Jesus saves simply by being born, by showing up, by coming among us.’

The Liberal Protestant Jesus is followed by many ‘alienated fundamentalists’, and many (not all) question whether some or all of the miraculous deeds recounted in the Gospels actually happened.

The Anabaptist Jesus – ‘For liberal Protestants and Anabaptists, Jesus saves through his teaching and example.’ ‘Jesus convenes a learning community of disciples who seek to model lives of love and peace.’

The Jesus of the Oppressed: ‘Jesus commissions and leads bands of activists to confront unjust regimes and make room for the shalom of God.’

‘All of these are partial projections that together can create a hologram: a richer, multidimensional vision of Jesus.’


‘I am a Christian because I have confidence in Jesus Christ – in all his dimensions (those I know, and those I don’t). I trust Jesus. I think Jesus is right because I believe God was in Jesus in an unprecedented way… I believe Jesus is Savior of the world, Lord, and Son of God: the image of God conveyed by Jesus as the Son of God, and the image of the universe that resonates with this image of God best fits my deepest experience, best resonates with my deepest intuition, best inspires my deepest hope, and best challenges me to live with what Mike Yaconelli called “dangerous wonder”, which is the starting point for a generous orthodoxy.’


‘To say “Jesus is Lord” was then (and should be now!) a profoundly political statement-  affirming the authority of a “powerless” Jewish rabbi with scarred feet over the power of Caesar himself with all his swords, spears, chariots and crosses.

‘In the midst of his radical deconstruction and reconstruction of the idea of Lord as master, Jesus asserts that he is the leader who gives commands (and not our wish-granting genie, taking commands from us).’

‘[But] we retained Jesus as Savior but promoted the apostle Paul (or someone else) to Lord and Teacher. (Even as Savior, though, we limited Jesus to saving us from hell, which is why we have had comparatively little interest in his saving us from greed, gossip, prejudice, violence, isolation, carelessness about the poor on the planet, hurry, hatred, envy, anger or pride).’

‘Tradition is a kind of “unknown knowledge” that philosopher Michael Polanyi calls “personal knowledge”: levels of knowledge that one has and knows but doesn’t even know one has or knows.’ (See his ‘Personal Knowledge: Towards a Postcritical Philosophy; also Dallas Willard’s ‘The Divine Conspiracy’).

‘Jesus as master’ teaches his apprentices a knowledge about how to live that can’t be reduced to information, words, rules, books, or instructions, but rather that must be seen in the words-plus-example of the Master.’


Vincent Donovan, [Christianity Rediscovered], to reach the Masai, had to reject Western ‘inward-turned, individual-salvation-oriented, unadapted Christianity’.

‘In the Bible “save” means “rescue” or “heal”. It emphatically does not automatically mean “save from hell” or “give eternal life after death,” as many preachers seem to imply in sermon after sermon- in any context “save” means “get out of trouble”. The trouble could be sickness, war, political intrigue, oppression, poverty, imprisonment or any kind of danger or evil.’

Sometimes God saves by judging: God will one day come to judge evil, expose it and permanently incapacitate it while vindicating good – a profound and joyful kind of salvation. ‘Salvation is what happens when we experience both judgment and forgiveness, both justice (exposing the truth about our wrong) and mercy (forgoing the negative consequences we deserve). Without both we don’t end up with true salvation.’

God also saves by teaching or revealing (showing how to set chain reactions of good in motion).

For many the idea of Jesus as my “personal Savior” has become another personal consumer product (like personal computers, a personal journal, personal time etc.). ‘The ultimate consumerism is narcissism. Being preoccupied with our own individual salvation puts us in danger of being like selfish people on the Titanic who were scrambling for the life rafts, more concerned about themselves than others.’

‘Although I believe in Jesus as my personal Savior, I am not a Christian for that reason. I am a Christian because I believe that Jesus is the Savior of the whole world. (The “personal Savior” gospel arose to solve an important problem: when Christianity was seen as the civil religion of the West, people considered themselves Christians simply because they were German or Danish or Italian or American. They saw themselves as generic Christians without personal commitment. The “personal Savior” gospel arose, in part at least, to encourage personal commitment; one made a personal commitment by believing in Jesus as their personal Savior. Sadly, like most solutions the “personal Savior” solution then went on to create new problems. (By the way, I wholeheartedly affirm the necessity of personal commitment [to Christ].’)

pp. 100-101.



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