Brian McLaren and Liberation Theology

The following was published as

The Wicked will not Inherit the Kingdom of God”: a Pauline Warning and the Hermeneutics of Liberation Theology and of Brian McLaren

 in Trinity Journal 31NS (2010)

Abstract: Emergent spokesman Brian McLaren promotes a view of the kingdom of God that draws near to and often merges with Liberation Theology. An examination of the Pauline texts of “exclusion from the kingdom” makes it clear how far he has moved away from evangelicalism. The more difficult McLaren will find it to accommodate certain Pauline texts, the more difficult it will be for him to refrain from pitting a Liberationist Jesus against a Pharisaic Paul.

I. Introduction

            Do we need another article about emergent spokesperson Brian McLaren? Or for that matter, about Liberation Theology (LT)? In short, yes. In the last few years, particularly with the publication of The Last Word and the Word after That in 2005, McLaren has promoted an interpretation of the kingdom that apparently moves him well into the camp of liberation thinking. This is no mere object of academic curiosity, but as we shall see below, may affect the theology of thousands or millions of American believers.    

            One remark by McLaren should put the Bible student on the alert: “I don’t think Paul is the enemy; I think our misinterpretations of Paul are the enemy.”[1] The alternative interpretation he offers is at heart liberationist. We will demonstrate that neither McLaren nor LT are able to provide a place for Paul’s statements about not inheriting the kingdom of God, and that they stumble for the same reasons.

II. Exegetical Considerations

            There are a dozen or so references to the kingdom of God in the Pauline corpus, including epistles viewed by some as deutero-Pauline.[2] Most texts have to do with God’s future reign.[3] Three of them—Gal 5:19-21; 1 Cor 6:9-10; and Eph 5:5—deal with how sinners will not inherit the kingdom.

Some exegetes imply that these kingdom-exclusion sayings are merely formulaic, that is, Paul picked them up from tradition and then used them offhandedly.[4] In fact, the following proofs show that they are Paul’s own language, and that he intended them to be straightforward declarations of who will not enter the age to come.

A. Reminder Language

            Paul himself offers evidence that the formula of “not inheriting the kingdom” was known and understood in his churches. In 1 Cor 6:9, he uses reminder language in the sense of “you know, don’t you, that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?” The possibility of exclusion from the kingdom formed part of the evangelization of Corinth: sinners will not inherit the kingdom of God, but the gospel transforms sinners (1 Cor 6:11; also in Gal 5:21b and Eph 5:5). It is not clear whether Paul had taught them about kingdom exclusion during his first or his second visit to Achaia; the former is likely, as indicated by Acts 14:22.[5] Paul used kingdom language in all regions of his ministry, even more specifically the formula “such-and-such will not inherit the kingdom.” He used it in his church-planting work and tapped into it again in his epistles to show how the exclusion formula yielded further insight into the Christian life.

B. Exclusion from the Future Eschatological Kingdom

            Paul writes next to nothing about post-mortem existence in heaven or hell. Rather his focus is on the eschatological coming of Christ and the resurrection of the body; for him “eternal life” is the life of the future resurrection. He shows that exclusion from the kingdom is future-eschatological in a fourth kingdom passage: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 15:50). The other inheritance passages likewise speak of end-time judgment, meaning: at the coming of Christ the unrighteous will not enter the kingdom, and here is a list of what God deems to be unrighteousness. 1 Thess 2:12 and 2 Thess 1:5 express the positive side of the eschatological judgment, speaking of “being regarded as worthy” of the kingdom. As Conzelmann observes, “the original apocalyptic sense of the concept ‘kingdom of God’ is maintained. . . . Paul did not spiritualize the concept.”[6]

            In the case of Eph 5:5, the wicked “has no inheritance,” some have speculated whether there is “de-eschatologization,” that is, that Paul or a deutero-Pauline author has changed the future hope to a present spiritual possession.[7] This exegesis falters in that it does not take into account the semantic range of “inherit”: “does not have an inheritance” with a present tense overlaps significantly with “will not inherit” with the future tense (cp. Eph 5:5 with its parallel in Col 3:5-6, which speaks of end-time judgment). It is best to take all three references in Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians as eschatological.

To the casual observer it might seem that Paul had appropriated traditional terminology about not inheriting the kingdom.[8] Nevertheless, Paul’s statements are without Jewish parallel:

  1. “Kingdom” as denoting the eschatological age is extremely rare in Second Temple Judaism; the concept of the age to come is expressed using other language.[9]
  2. “Will not inherit” or “be excluded from” the age to come (not “the kingdom”) is common. The Mishnah provides a classic example: “All Israelites have a share in the world to come. . . . And these are the ones who have no portion in the world to come. . . .” (six groups are then listed as excluded) (m. San. 10.1 [Neusner]).

            It is to the NT itself that we must turn for parallels to the formula “inherit the kingdom.”[10] There is nothing corresponding to the formulaic style that we encounter in the Pauline passages.[11] Rather, it looks likely that Paul himself combined certain elements from Judaism and from the dominical tradition, with liberty to express himself in accordance with his own teaching needs.

C. Vice Lists

            Paul employs a known trope in Galatians and in 1 Corinthians, more briefly in Ephesians: the vice list (in German, Lasterkataloge). “In contrast to the Hebrew Bible, lists of both virtues and vices are quite numerous in later Jewish literature.”[12] For example, according to the Manual of Discipline these sins send people to the eternal fire:

to the spirit of deceit belong greed, sluggishness in the service of justice, wickedness, falsehood, pride, haughtiness of heart, dishonesty, trickery, cruelty, etc.”[13]

            Before he dictated 1 Cor 6:9-10, Paul had already provided two lists of sins in 1 Cor 5:9-11, actions which categorized people in the kosmos. As with the “inheritance” language, the fact that Paul used the vice list sub-genre does not mean that he left the definition of sin to the dead hand of tradition: the elements of these lists are to a great extent shaped by the Sitze im Leben of the various churches. The book of Revelation likewise has two inclusion/exclusion passages that are connected with vice lists (Rev 21:7-8; 22:14-15; cf. parallel in Rev 9:20-21); like Paul, Revelation names vices that are of particular relevance to the original recipients.

D. Did Paul Draw Boundary Markers?

            Paul had left behind the Pharisaic paradigm of covenantal exclusiveness. Yet his coming to Christ did not mean that he abandoned the category of the eschatological exclusion of sinners; rather, he came to a radical new understanding of who was “in.” He shows in passages such as Gal 3:28 that the line of demarcation is not drawn along social, gender, or racial lines. Still, there is a line: those who are “in Christ” (Gal 3:26-27) are the true heirs of Abraham (Gal 3:29). This is an echo from a previous debate, when some Christian Pharisees clashed with Paul and Barnabas about boundary markers (Acts 15:1, 5). The Jerusalem Council reaffirmed that indeed there is a line between those who are part of God’s people, and those who were not (Acts 15:14). The question is not “is there a line?” but “where is the line?” The answer lies in the issue of belief/unbelief (Acts 15:7, 9).

            When Paul preached in Asia Minor and Greece, it was he who introduced a doctrine of eschatological exclusion where one did not previously exist. While some of his converts were from the synagogue, the demographic would soon tip to churches that were primarily Gentile. It was he who, first, had to teach them about the future kingdom of God; second, that it was possible not to inherit the kingdom; and third, that sinners in certain categories would be among those who would not inherit it. If Paul had not taught this, the Greeks might have gone on believing in an afterlife of grim shadows (cf. Homer, Odyssey, Book XI), from which no-one was excluded. If the Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians believed that sinners would not inherit the future kingdom, it was because Paul specifically made the point of pressing that doctrine upon them.

III. The Theology of Liberation and the Kingdom

            Liberation theology employs a hermeneutic that works in favor of the poor. This is based on the assumption that an objective hermeneutic is impossible, and that therefore the just path leads toward following God’s love for the poor in the Scriptures and employing the Bible to implement it with works of justice (orthopraxy).[14] The Catholic Church has officially condemned those expressions of LT that are driven by Marxist or quasi-Marxist political theory.

            In order to show its relevance to Brian McLaren’s theology, it will be necessary to make a few broad observations about LT:

A. A Canon within a Canon

            Most LT thinkers privilege the Synoptic Gospels and Revelation as the sources for their kingdom theology and practice; within the gospels, honor is given to the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the sheep and the goats.[15] One LT writer puts it this way:

We wish to propose the four gospels as memory, creed and canon for church reform. . . .the four gospels and the church founded upon them continue to be the source of life and hope for the world, a world in which there is life for every man and woman, in harmony with nature.[16]

            Paul usually receives less attention; perhaps he was more theologian than doer of the kingdom, trapped in his own speculative Christology and soteriology.[17] Thus in one way, LT resembles the German/Swiss Liberalism of the nineteenth century, which pledged fealty to the Jesus of history rather than to the Christ of (Pauline) theology.

B. The Kingdom and Time

            In LT the kingdom may retain a temporal element, with the recognition that the world does not (yet) conform to the righteous ideal. Always one must engage in the struggle to achieve a just economic and political situation. LT tends to set aside the hope of a “millennial” kingdom as distraction from the real work of the church. To be sure, Jürgen Moltmann’s “theology of hope” contains certain of the biblical eschatological truths (the Parousia, the corporal resurrection, the transformation of creation), but typically LT hews more closely to the well-known Marxist line, that “heaven” is designed to keep the poor in their place.

            Hence, the kingdom is concretely present in the world:

Any partial and limited instances of historical liberation on the socio-economic-political level are to be seen as “real mediations” and “anticipatory concretizations” of the eschatological Kingdom.[18]

            The whole human race can and must live within the kingdom, be it present or future. Salvation is principally or totally socio-political, and it is almost inconceivable within this paradigm to speak of the lostness of the individual in the sense of being excluded from a future paradise. Rather, what lies with the individual is the choice to be on the side of kingdom justice or not.

C. Who Is Excluded from the Kingdom of God?

            Jesus spoke of being excluded from the kingdom, notably in the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt 13:40-42), the parable of the fish (Matt 13:49-50), and of course the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:41, 46). Like Jesus, Paul also speaks of certain persons and groups “not inheriting the kingdom.” This clashes with the LT hermeneutic, since it typically regards adikia in Pauline theology, not (or, not merely) as personal unrighteousness before a righteous God, but the oppressive systemic injustice that makes itself felt against society’s marginalized. In the case of one LT writer on 1 Corinthians:

The vice list (6:9-10) then details examples of the oppression and injustice of covetous and rapacious persons, who cannot participate in God’s new just order (see the inclusion and repetition of “kingdom,” 6:9-10 . . .). The “justification” celebrated in 6:11 thus refers to God’s liberating justice: vindication and acceptance of the poor, weak, oppressed and marginalized, which results in freedom from control freaks (6:12).[19]

            That LT is missing the point is shown by even a casual reading of these texts: yes, injustice is unrighteous, but not all unrighteousness is injustice committed against other human beings. Idolatry, for example, forms a part of all three vice lists. One LT writer tries to limit this to the deification of Rome, that is to say “to participate in the intricate web of local cults that gave sacred legitimation to the empire.”[20] In that case 1 Cor 6:9 is a political manifesto against the empire. But Paul does not connect idolatry with any religio-political structure as such. Idolatry would exclude real flesh and blood Corinthians (or Phoenicians or Egyptians or Germans!) from the coming kingdom.

            What other sins are barriers to the kingdom? First Corinthians has three words that deal with thieves or the greedy or robbers; Ephesians of course has “greedy (that is an idolater)”; Galatians lists eritheia, which might mean “ambition.” An LT interpretation might look like: agents of capitalism/neoliberalism/the free market are the true thieves of the world; their system is based on avarice; and they swindle the poor of Latin America with promises of free market prosperity which are a mask for robbing them of natural resources and selling manufactured products at inflated prices. Yet one must ask if that is what the original readers of the epistles heard. In Eph 4:28, for example, “let the one who robs, rob no more,” Paul directs himself to the so-called common thief, not to the powerful exploiter of the poor (as does Jas 5:1-6). The alternative is that the person seek manual labor.

            It is stereotypically Jewish that idolatry and sexual perversion appear together as expressions of Gentile apostasy (1 Cor 6:9; Gal 5:19-20; Rom 1:25-27). Who are the malakoi and arsenokoitai in 1 Cor 6:9 with respect to not inheriting the kingdom? The reader is invited to consult the available literature on this issue; we will simply make some observations.[21]

            Fundamental to the LT paradigm is that the kingdom of God means the liberation of the oppressed. It is therefore in line with divine justice to privilege certain people groups within that kingdom, if it can be shown that they are victims rather than perpetrators of oppression. With the growth of a liberationist hermeneutic “from below,” it was only a matter of time before groups who are oppressed for their lack of conformity to conventional sexual mores would seek a privileged place as heirs of the kingdom, while the intolerant would be relabeled as enemies of God’s reign. For example, “regrettably, even today churches and pastors ‘attack the weakest sheep,’ defame certain [sexual] minorities and promote discrimination and violence against them.”[22] This new hermeneutic of sexuality, therefore, is not only consistent with LT: it is a logical necessity.

            In general, LT handles 1 Cor 6:9 in one of these ways:

  1. Paul himself did not mean to exclude those who practiced homosexual acts from the kingdom of God; the church traditionally has misunderstood him.[23]
  2. Paul himself did mean to exclude those who practiced homosexual acts from the kingdom of God, but his opinion has no authority for an ethic grounded in the kingdom.[24]

Irene Foulkes offers a programmatic explanation of (1): while the OT in fact had condemned all homosexual activity whatsoever,

Paul claims here that his objection to the arsenokoitai is based in the concept of the kingdom of God. Judged by love and kingdom justice, the practice of pederasty is condemned because it constitutes an unjust relationship.[25]

            The malakoi are according to Foulkes the immature and economically disadvantaged younger sexual partners. Yet this common LT exegesis of the text breaks down if malakoi are people who are being used against their will. Many first century prostitutes, male or female, would be de jure or de facto slaves. Logically then, the question of excluding the malakoi from the kingdom would be moot, since in Pauline theology, as in all Christian theology, where there is no freedom to act there is no moral culpability![26] Hanks’s approach is similar to that of Foulkes, but he too does not attempt to show why he thinks the sexually victimized should not be excluded from the kingdom. Why does Paul find in their pattern of moral choices a sin so odious that it leads to their damnation?[27] It is very difficult to make Paul speak of homosexual prostitution; nor sacred prostitution; nor necessarily of (in the case of arsenokoitai) sexual predators; nor even people who engaged in homosexual practices exclusively.

            What of the other vices? They all fall within the range of possible vices committed for the rich or for the poor: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, strife, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing (Galatians); fornicators, adulterers, drunkards, revilers (1 Corinthians); fornicator, impure person (Ephesians). As in the other vices, although these offenses did harm on a horizontal, social level, they were also an offense to God on a vertical level. For example, fornication harmed others, but it was first and foremost an offense against God, as is made absolutely clear in 1 Cor 6:12-20.

            Within the vice lists that are attached to eschatological kingdom-exclusion, there is no particular emphasis upon the sins of the powerful against the weak. God is a just judge, and “all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10)

IV. The Hermeneutic of Emergent Leader Brian McLaren and the Kingdom

            The hermeneutic of “emergent” spokesperson Brian McLaren may be distilled from a number of his recent key writings.[28]

            We may deduce four points from his writings:

A. Eschatological: The Kingdom of God Is Already Present and Will By God’s Grace Be Radically Realized During This Age

            A typical approach to the kingdom of God is that in some way the kingdom is now and not yet.[29] In LT, the future-eschatological aspect may be truncated or eliminated entirely. In some systems it is taken more as myth than literal truth, communicating what a just world looks like without necessarily predicting a future-temporal reality. And that is almost precisely what we see in McLaren: while affirming the eschatological resurrection,[30] he nevertheless places almost all of his emphasis on the kingdom in this age:

Jesus seems to say, “The kingdom of God doesn’t need to wait until something else happens. No, it is available and among you now.”[31]

To the degree that [Christian communities] are learning to live in love and peace and faith and hope, they are living the lifestyle of the future.[32]

In the future of this age comes the new world:

The other world, the new world, is not free of tears; but in the new world, comfort comes from God, and tears are dried. This new world is not free of conflict, but here conflict leads to reconciliation rather than revenge. This new world is not free of need, but generosity flows whenever need arises. In short, this new world is the world promised by the prophets.[33]

            This is not (traditional or preterist) postmillennialism; rather, McLaren’s viewpoint is very much within the liberationist framework. In fact, chs. 12-13 and 22 of The Last Word and the Word after That could be a textbook example of liberationist soteriology: the gospel is not principally about the forgiveness of the individual’s sins, but rather how the kingdom can save the world during this age.

B. Hermeneutical: Seeming “Predictions” That Are Conveyed through Apocalyptic Language Are Really Promises and Warnings about Life in the Current Age

            McLaren employs a distinctive hermeneutic to the question of eschatological damnation:

Actually, in the Bible, especially in the Psalms, people are often praying eagerly that judgment will come. That’s because they weren’t thinking in the binary terms of heaven and hell after this life. Instead, they were looking for God to intervene in history so that the oppressors, the warmongers, the greedy, the abusers, the violent, the careless toward the widow and orphan and poor would be stopped, exposed, and frustrated, so that justice and peace and joy could flourish.[34]

            That is, we have to do not with eschatological exclusion from the kingdom, but annulment within this age. His penchant for false dichotomy is here on clear display, as also in the following:

But if we take the biblical material less as prognostications and more as promises and warnings for their original hearers, we have a much simpler scenario: we humans live with ever-present warning and promise, with the ultimate warning that evil and injustice will lose and the ultimate promise that God and good will win.[35]

            Does McLaren hold to a literal exclusion from the kingdom of God in some sort of hell? On that point he equivocates more than usual:

I have a feeling that if we knew more of the historical background of the concept of hell, we’d have a very different understanding of Jesus’ statements on it. The same goes for heaven.”[36] Again:

We should consider the possibility that many, and perhaps even all of Jesus’ hell-fire or end-of-the-universe statements refer not to postmortem judgment but to the very historic consequences of rejecting his kingdom message of reconciliation and peacemaking.[37]

Very well: “if we knew more” and “we should consider the possibility” . . . but is McLaren sincerely proposing a hermeneutical direction? No, he is using false dichotomy, as he does here:

Although in many ways I find myself closer to the view of God held by some universalists than I do the view held by some exclusivists, in the end I’d rather turn our attention from the questions WE think are important to the question JESUS thinks is most important. We obsess on “who’s in” and “who’s out.” Jesus, however, seems to be asking the question, “How can the kingdom of God more fully come on earth as it is in heaven, and how should disciples of the kingdom live to enter and welcome the kingdom?”[38]

In a 2006 podcast McLaren expressed doubt over the doctrine of hell, saying that it logically would demand that

In the end, God gets His way through coercion and violence and intimidation and domination, just like every other kingdom does. The cross isn’t the center then. The cross is almost a distraction and false advertising for God.[39]

To be fair, we must underscore that the last two sentences about the cross are hypothetical: the cross in that case would almost be false advertising.

            Why then does Jesus seem to be preaching about a literal hell? Here, McLaren equivocates and employs the either-or fallacy:

May we assume that whatever is meant by heaven and hell is meant as an encouragement not to lose interest—an encouragement to weigh the negative consequences of losing interest as so undesirable and the positive consequences as so wonderful, that you will not want to abandon your spiritual quest, no matter the difficulties? In other words, may we assume that the real point of the concept of heaven and hell is to impress upon us how consequential our spiritual decisions are?[40]

            McLaren turns to the Pharisees, who significantly included one Saul of Tarsus. He argues that:

The Pharisees used hell language in one way. Jesus turned it around and used it in the opposite way. They threatened marginal people with hell unless they submitted to their religious dominance. Jesus threatened the religious establishment with hell unless they showed compassion for the marginal people.[41]

But wait! According to McLaren, the Jews had constructed a hell myth out of a synthesis of Near Eastern traditions. Jesus himself later employed the myth, but did not take it literally. Yet Jesus never directly stated that he meant it as anything other than real end-time damnation.[42] McLaren takes the evangelical into extraordinarily dangerous terrain, once we grant that Jesus didn’t intend observers to take him at his word, and that only twenty-first century readers are beginning to figure out what he meant.

            By what hermeneutic does the reader detect and reinterpret myth in the teaching of Jesus? On the one hand is the radical hermeneutic of Rudolf Bultmann: biblical myths such as hell are neither to be taken literally, nor thrown out, but “demythologized” in order to see the existential truth that lies behind them.[43] Among LT writers, one encounters variety: some emulate Bultmann in demythologizing God’s judgment; others believe that while change will be felt in socio-economic and political levels, it is still a work of God’s intervention and not myth in the Bultmannian sense.

            McLaren, for his part, claims that he can “deconstruct hell”—not deconstruct the Bible, to be sure, nor the biblical references to hell, but rather the traditional interpretations of the hell doctrine, in order to find the positive message behind it.[44] Hermeneutically this is a razor-thin line, given that he thinks that neither the apostolic church (reflected in the NT) nor the post-apostolic church (Justin Martyr in particular) moved beyond the hell doctrine. Yet at this crucial point he loses focus. If he is employing the term “deconstruct” in its normal usage, this should mean that he is deconstructing the Pharisaic doctrine of hell and showing how it was used to maintain them in power over the rest of the Jews. In the case of hell or exclusion from the kingdom, according to McLaren in The Last Word, Jesus probably did not threaten the Pharisees with hell except as a warning about rebelling against Rome. Jesus used myth, says McLaren, in order to push them into something better—but he was not speaking about eternal separation from God (no matter if it be by fire, worms, or outer darkness). We must conclude that McLaren cannot take “hell” as more than a hypothetical threat on Jesus’ lips, since in his exegesis Jesus did not believe in it and was seeking to overturn those who did and to push them toward a more inclusivist soteriology. Yet, as McLaren concedes, neither he nor the apostolic writers clearly signaled that that is what they were doing. In his deconstruction, it is the Biblical text itself that becomes problematic; his “deconstruction” verges on a Bultmannian-style demythologization.

            Jesus made pronouncements about eschatological reversal. An example is Matt 10:32-33: “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” Jesus will affirm some and deny some on the final day; what makes his message differ from that of the Pharisees is not that he eliminates the danger of judgment but rather that he expands it to those who aren’t expecting it—even people who claim to be Jesus’ disciples (Matt 7:24-27).

C. Soteriological: Any Claim to Knowledge of Who Is In and Who Is Out of the Kingdom Is Antithetical to Jesus’ Gospel

            Is it permissible for a follower of Jesus to state that “the following groups of people will be excluded from the kingdom of God”? According to McLaren, no: one chapter of A New Kind of Christian bears the title “It’s None of your Business who Goes to Hell.”[45]

I remember us talking about in-grouping and out-grouping once. I think Jesus does everything he can to steer us away from that. (But of course, we manage to do it anyway!) So when we try to in-group and out-group regarding heaven and hell, I think we’re disappointing the Lord, who would rather we concentrate on our own predicament.[46]

            Here McLaren sets up yet another false dilemma: we either think in macro-terms of who enters/is barred from the kingdom or we have the means to “concentrate on our own predicament.” But in Paul’s letters, to say nothing of Jesus’ teaching, there is ample space given to the individual’s destiny as well as to the destiny of groups. The very exclusion formula in 1 Cor 6:9-10 was meant to speak both about categories of people and to warn specific Corinthians who were in incest (5:1) or seeking retribution (6:1) or going to prostitutes (6:15-16).

            We note briefly that McLaren paints himself into a corner with respect to homosexual behavior: he understands Jesus’ teaching as a rejection of the Pharisees’ paradigm of exclusion from the kingdom; yet here in certain Pauline passages, Paul clearly excludes groups of people—even, in the exegesis with a strong probability of correctness, men who engage in homosexual acts. Thus, in comparison with LT authors analyzed above, McLaren tentatively invokes the first option: perhaps we are not properly exegeting the relevant texts about homosexuals, but who can be sure?[47]

            But McLaren’s issues with Paul go well beyond the battle over homosexual behavior. Must not McLaren be forced to conclude that Paul was still moving with the paradigm of Pharisaic soteriology? “No!” rejoins McLaren. He does not want to lose Paul; one might suspect that he does not want to lose his evangelical readership either. In The Secret Message of Jesus, McLaren refers to the Pauline kingdom of God sayings and concludes that Paul is a friend of the gospel of the kingdom.[48] Paul understands, McLaren thinks, that “the kingdom of God will be radically, scandalously inclusive.”[49] And so he is using sleight-of-hand to divert the reader’s attention: Paul “got Jesus,” but only so long as it is McLaren’s interpretation of Jesus:

Right at the heart of Paul’s letters, we find these very issues of inclusion played out time and again: How can Jews and Gentiles be brought together in one kingdom, one network of relationships?”[50]

            This is fundamental to the Pauline kerygma, but McLaren does not show how Paul’s exclusion statements fit into his theology of the kingdom. He argues that the contemporary church is Pharisaical, since it uses eschatology in order to maintain power over others. For his part, McLaren hints that when Paul speaks of exclusion from the kingdom, it is not eschatological judgment that is on his mind.[51] He gives Paul a liberationist spin:

If [the people in power in this world] talked about sin, it tended to be sexual sins, or drunkenness, that sort of thing—all personal or individual sins that they, being middle-class and living in nice suburban homes, found it easier to avoid and condemn or at least hide than some of us. They stayed pretty far away from systemic and social sins like racism and greed. If it wasn’t related to the individual and his precious little soul, it pretty much disappeared from view for them.[52]

There can be no doubt what this means: No real follower of Jesus can say that “Those who commit sexual sins, or drunkenness will not inherit the kingdom of God”; or to draw it out to its logical end, anyone who could pen 1 Cor 6:9-10 is an unreconstructed Pharisee. But there is a further problem: McLaren really has not grasped the meaning of Paul’s vice lists. The apostle has condemned a variety of sins—the supposedly individual ones like sexual sin and drunkenness as well as the supposedly social ones like greed and hate (which encompass institutional greed or racial hatred). But there is no dichotomy between individual and social here.

            In addition, how can McLaren so blithely label fornication or drunkenness as personal sins that only serve as impediments to an individualistic clear conscience? For all his desire to transform his reader’s North American, suburban, middle-class gospel, he seems naïve about how certain sins can feed the overarching oppression of the poor and disenfranchised in America and in the Two-Thirds World. Within a precario (shanty town) of my adoptive country Costa Rica, fornication is not just sex between consenting adults—it often takes the form of exploitation. For example, there are those who ply prostitutes with drugs in order to force them into addiction and from there into virtual slavery. An appalling percentage of teen pregnancies is due, not to couples who don’t use protection, but to forced intercourse by a relative or the mother’s lover. Yes, systemic “robbery” through economic exploitation creates its own web of ramifications; but the immediate and possibly fatal results of a ladrón create an oppression that is rarely matched in suburban North America, where the typical outcome is a call to 9-1-1 to fill out a police report. Drunkenness is not simply a question of one’s personal health—it piles on to a network of economic futility, violence, and of course sex crimes. In his exclusion statements, Paul is predicting damnation for all who commit sin at any level.

D. Pastoral/Evangelistic: The Christian Should Not Pressure the World About Individual Eternal Destiny

            McLaren believes that if a Christian puts pressure on an unbeliever about heaven and hell, and if “hell” doesn’t mean much to that person, then that approach will be counterproductive.[53] Therefore he advocates cutting out warnings about hell (or, we must add, on exclusion from the kingdom) in evangelism.

            Nevertheless, what we see in the Pauline texts is not – as McLaren would be compelled to argue—how Paul preached the kingdom of God to those who already held to a hell myth, but rather principally to those who had no prior contact with Pharisaic Judaism. Indeed, McLaren’s failure to integrate how the canon grew and functioned in the first century makes him draw some questionable hermeneutical conclusions: he does not take into account that most books of the NT were written for a largely Gentile audience. This is true of Revelation (implied by the tension between church and synagogue in Rev 2:9; 3:9), where the lake of fire is the eternal destiny of the wicked. Even the Gospels must be thought of in this way; although Jesus is recorded as interacting with Pharisees and other Jews, the four volumes themselves were written to various intended audiences. The auditors would likely be Gentiles far from Palestine and the Pharisaic movement, but who had been introduced to the doctrine of exclusion from the kingdom as part of their evangelization and discipleship.

            This is all to say that Paul, the four evangelists, and other writers had ample opportunity to deconstruct a kerygma that surely looked as if it said that some were “in” and others “out” of the eschatological kingdom. They not only maintained that doctrine but pushed it as intrinsic to the gospel message.

V. Conclusion

            Paul fused two genres as part of his basic teaching for his converts: the traditional vice list and a Christian (very likely Pauline) formula about not inheriting the kingdom of God. The message of Paul in these texts is that, at the Parousia of Christ, the wicked will not inherit or enter the kingdom of God. Among the unrighteous are persons that might be found in the contexts of Corinth, Galatia, and Ephesus: those who worship Greco-Roman gods; the greedy, for whom possessions are a god; those who commit sexual sins; the drunkards, the sorcerers, those who cause divisions and factions; and many others. And it did not matter from what stratum of society the unrighteous came.

            By disregarding or minimizing these Pauline texts, LT has run the risk of recasting the kingdom of God in reductionist terms, that is, focusing solely or heavy-handedly on the social and political levels. In Paul’s letters, the eschatological exclusion indeed has implications for the present life (for example, lawsuits among believers in 1 Corinthians 6); but likewise the believers also (primarily) must take care for their own eschatological destination (2 Thess 1:5).

            We have seen that at a number of crucial points, McLaren’s hermeneutical path intersects with that of liberation theology. He affirms:

  1. The established church, be it “culture-controlled” evangelical or Roman Catholic, has commandeered the sacred text in order to maintain its own clout within the power structures of this age.
  2. The Bible is legitimately interpreted by those who are inducted into “the Secret Gospel of Jesus.” Although the underprivileged might naturally be regarded as the prime candidates for this knowledge, his writings seem to privilege interpreters who are advocates for the underprivileged
  3. The Gospels—and more narrowly, certain Gospel texts—are the foundation for a legitimate kingdom theology.
  4. Apocalyptic language in the Gospels is mythical.
  5. The kingdom is this-worldly and is manifested in social and economic liberation
  6. “Traditional” sins, such as sexual immorality, are of minor importance in comparison with societal sins.
  7. The church’s approach to homosexual behavior reveals more about the church’s judgmentalism than it does about the moral status of homosexual acts and state of those who practice them.
  8. The church must preach and practice the true kingdom message of transformation, not an eschatological message of heaven or hell.

            For at least four years,[54] McLaren has been a prophet who in this regard looks at home within the circle of liberation theology. We must not engage in “guilt by association”—if guilt there be. After all, two groups might employ the same general interpretive principles and yet be moving in different directions. Nevertheless, in our test case, we have seen that representatives of liberation theology and emergent leader Brian McLaren fail to offer a theology that has a place for certain kerygmatic kingdom texts in Paul.

            We return to the beginning of our study, to the question of whether this article is necessary. It is worth wondering how Brian McLaren and other emergent leaders will integrate difficult Pauline teachings in the future. Will he be tempted by the route of the nineteenth century, of making Paul the proclaimer of a reactionary theology? Will he feel compelled to conclude that Paul did not fundamentally understand the message of Jesus? We find ourselves back at the beginning: to date Brian McLaren maintains, “I don’t think Paul is the enemy.”

            Another danger lies at hand. Liberation theology in Latin America has been on the downturn, particularly since Pope John Paul II and particularly Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) condemned it in Libertatis Nuntius. In Protestant circles it still exists but has been shouldered aside—unfortunately in many cases by the Word of Faith movement. Yet LT seems to be taking new sustenance from the emergent theology of its Northern neighbor. McLaren toured Latin America in 2006 in order to promote his vision to evangelicals and other groups (see emc/archives/resources/family-letter-from-latin-america.html). His Secret Message of Jesus is available in Spanish. A northern evangelical could provide the energy needed to rejuvenate a liberationist direction.

            The effect also works in reverse. Very few evangelicals would have heard of leading LT thinkers and activists such as Walter Wink or Archbishop Romero of El Salvador (liberationist but anti-Marxist) unless they had read about them in McLaren.[55] One can easily imagine the fusion of LT with post-evangelicalism in North and South America, resulting in an amalgam that mirrors mainline Protestantism.

[1]Brian D. McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 91.

[2]See the useful overview of the Pauline material by L. J. Kreitzer, “Kingdom of God/Christ,” in DPL, 524-26.

[3]By general consensus, these are: 1 Thess 2:12; 2 Thess 1:5; 1 Cor 6:9-10; 15:24, 50; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:5; 2 Tim 4:1; probably 2 Tim 4:18; also Acts 14:22. We use the NRSV, although we will take exception with its interpretation of 1 Cor 6:9, “male prostitutes” (the significance of malakoi does not include the economic implication of prostitution).

[4]So Paul Hammer, “A Comparison of Klēronomia in Paul and Ephesians,” JBL 79 (1960): 267-72 (268).

[5]So F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians (NIGNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 251.

[6]Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1990), 106, also n. 31. To be fair, Conzelmann sees an eschatological meaning of the kingdom throughout Paul (ibid., 93 n. 29). But as far as the exclusion texts are concerned, hardly any commentator sees anything but an eschatological reference in 1 Corinthians and Galatians.

[7]E.g., Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 662 n. 2.

[8]As implied by Hans Betz, Galatians (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 284-85.

[9]C. Caragounis, “Kingdom of Heaven/Kingdom of God,” in DJG, 418-20. One has to go to such remote texts such as Assumption of Moses (As. Mos. 10.1) in the late first century A.D. to find references to an eschatological “kingdom.” Paul sounds much like a first century rabbi in Eph 1:21 when he speaks of “this age and the age to come.”

[10]Notably, Matt 5:3, 10; 25:34 and parallels; John 3:3, 5; Acts 14:22; 2 Pet 1:11; cf. the echo in Jas 2:5.

[11]See in Günter Haufe, “Reich Gottes bei Paulus und in der Jesustradition,” NTS 31 (1985): 467-72 (esp. 467-68). There are also sub-apostolic references to those “not inheriting the kingdom of God” (e.g., Ign. Eph. 16.1; Ign. Phld. 3.3).

[12] John T. Fitzgerald, “Virtue/Vice Lists,” in ABD 6:858; also Betz, Galatians, 281-83. They are found in Philo, the testamentary literature, the apocalypses, the Qumran scrolls and rabbinic writings. They are frequently found in post-NT literature, e.g., Did. 2:1-5:2; Acts of John 36.

[13]1QS IV 9, García Martínez translation.

[14]See Emilio A. Nuñez, Liberation Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1985); J. R. Levison, “Liberation Hermeneutics,” in DJG, 464-68.

[15]Note the fine summary of the kingdom of God theme in LT in S.-k. Han, “Kingdom of God,” in Global Dictionary of Theology (ed. W. A. Dyrness et al.; Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity. 2008), 453-59 (esp. 456-57). Cf. remarks about Matthew by LT proponent Gustavo Gutiérrez, Essential Writings (ed. James B. Nickoloff; Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1996), 227-36 in §27 “Between Gift and Demand.” For an analysis of the kingdom in all four gospels, see Caragounis, “Kingdom of Heaven/Kingdom of God,” 417-30.

[16]Pablo Richard, “El Jesús histórico y los 4 evangelios: Memoria, credo y canon para una reforma de la Iglesia,” n.p. Online: documentario/940T-Richard.htm [our own translation]. We must also mention the more moderate stance by Jon Sobrino, “Teología desde la realidad,” in Juan-José Tamayo and Juan Bosch, eds., Panorama de la Teología Latinoamericana: cuando vida y pensamiento son inseparables… (2d ed.; Navarra: Verbo Divino, 2002), 621-22.

[17]In LT, there has always existed a wide variety. For example, one notes a greater appreciation for the Pauline texts within the writings of the Mexican theologian José Porfirio Miranda, although through a strongly Marxist reading: see Emilio A. Nuñez, Liberation Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1985), 152-59. Note the telling comment by Neil Elliott, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1994), 227: “Perhaps surprisingly, the epochal emergence of Latin American liberation theology, which occasioned a dramatic political reinterpretation of Jesus, has not ushered in a corresponding new understanding of Paul.” 

[18]John Fuellenbach, “Kingdom of God as Principle of Action in the Church,” n.p.
[cited November 20, 1999]. Online: See too Leonardo Boff, The Lord’s Prayer: The Prayer of Integral Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1982), 61-62; Leonardo Boff, “Teología bajo el signo de la transformación,” in Tamayo and Bosch, eds., Panorama de la Teología Latinoamericana, 176. Irene Foulkes tries to smooth the differences between Jesus and Paul: “[Jesus’] proclamation of the kingdom, with its demands of justice and love in the present, would destabilize the socio-political and religio-political power structures in Palestine,” whereas the Pauline proclamation of the risen Jesus had “similar implications within a new social environment.” (Problemas pastorales en Corinto: comentario exegético-pastoral a 1 Corintios [San José, CR: DEI, 1996], 167 [our translation]).

[19]Other Sheep Argentine Foundation, “The Subversive Gospel,” n.p. Online:, search under “Books on line” for 1 Corinthians.

[20]Elliott, Liberating Paul, 196. He calls the Pauline house churches “communities of resistance.”

[21]For example: James B. De Young, Homosexuality: Contemporary Claims Examined in the Light of the Bible and Other Ancient Literature and Law (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000); Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1983); George R. Edwards, Gay/Lesbian Liberation: A Biblical Perspective (New York: Pilgrim, 1984); Miguel A. de la Torre, Reading the Bible from the Margins (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2002); Marcella Althaus-Reid, ed., Liberation Theology and Sexuality (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2006). W. Schrage (Der erste Brief an die Korinther [EKKNT 7; 4 vols.; Neukirchen Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1991-2001], 1:435) writes that Paul condemns consensual homosexual sex. There is an attempt to refute this perspective in the essay “Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1:18-32,” in Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), ch. 4; idem, “Arsenokoitēs and Malakos: Meanings and consequences,” in Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to the Scripture (ed. Robert L. Brawley; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996).

[22]Other Sheep Foundation of Argentina. Online: . See a brief analysis of this type of “implication hermeneutic” in Thomas E. Schmidt, Straight & Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexual Debate (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1995), 34-37.

[23]John Boswell, e.g., concludes that “The New Testament takes no demonstrable position on homosexuality.” See Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University Press, 2005), 117. See also Other Sheep Argentine Foundation, “The Subversive Gospel,” n.p. Online: http://www., search under Books on Line for 1 Corinthians.

[24]Benjamin Forcano, “Homosexualidad y el cristianismo,” n.p. Online: [our own translation]; cf. Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1983), ch. 1 (concerning various denominations). Hans-Michael Vermeersch wavers between 1 and 2: “Did Paul intend to condemn homosexuals? It would appear that his writings leave us with no compelling evidence to decide in the affirmative. Regardless, Paul was a poor authority when it came to matters of sex.” See his essay on “Paul’s use of the words malakoi and arsenokoitai,” n.p. Online:

[25]Foulkes, Problemas Pastorales, 166 [our own translation, emphasis added]. Martin, “Arsenokoitēs and Malakos,” 122, also speaks of sexual violation, although his historical references hardly prove his case. See also De la Torre, Reading the Bible from the Margins, 100: “The homosexual model prevalent during Paul’s time was one in which pre-adolescent boys were exploited by adult males for the purpose of the adult’s sexual gratification.” He then leaves open the probability that this is the issue at stake in 1 Cor 6:9. De la Torre also suggests that perhaps the Bible is speaking of cultic prostitution. He tries to prove neither position, leaving the question hanging.

[26]See Tom Hanks, “Violence to the Bible? Or Inspired by the Bible? Homophobia as Murder,” point 6, p. 6. Online:

[27]Polycarp in the second century and Origen in the third, addressed young men and spoke as if it was their choice to being malakoi or not. Polycarp of Smyrna looked at 1 Cor 6:9-10 and implied that the “young men” to whom he wrote in Philippi had the ability to reject the lifestyle of the malakoi (Pol. Phil. 5.3). Origen took the same approach in a frank commentary on 1 Corinthians. Commenting on malakoi, he told the young men that this means they must not allow themselves—again, through their own moral decision!—to be sexually used in a womanly way: “Don’t you be defiled by such womanish defilement (gunaikeivw/ molusmw/’)!” For the Origen fragment, see C. Jenkins, ed., “Documents: Origen on I Corinthians,” JTS 9-10 (1908), sect. 27, line 49 [our own translation].

[28]Most importantly, The Last Word and the Word after That: A Tale of Faith, Doubt, and a New Kind of Christianity (Indianapolis: Jossey-Bass, 2005). Here he develops the eschatology that made an appearance in A New Kind of Christian (see below). Cf. McClaren, Secret Message of Jesus; Brian McClaren and Tony Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003). Two more significant McClaren works: A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Indianapolis: Jossey-Bass, 2001); The Story We Find Ourselves In: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian (Indianapolis: Jossey-Bass, 2003). Finally, in addition to supplemental information available on blogs, there is The Justice Project, a series of topical essays edited by McLaren and Elisa Padilla (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), which reflects his ideology, and then goes into detail regarding what an evangelical might do to promote peace and justice.

[29]So George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 56: “If a majority of scholars have approached a consensus, it is that the Kingdom is in some real sense both present and future.” Nor is this a purely Protestant approach; see the oft-overlooked book by Catholic scholar Rudolf Schnackenburg, God’s Rule and Kingdom (New York: Herder and Herder, 1963); also the analysis of present and future from an LT perspective by Gutiérrez, Essential Writings, 173-75 in §26 “The Kingdom is at Hand.”

[30]Or does he? See Last Word, 189; 226-28; also The Story We Find Ourselves In, 193-94. He regards the “harvest” metaphor in Jesus’ teaching as principally being fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, although he looks to the resurrection and final judgment as a secondary application. See Secret Message of Jesus, 185-86; also under “Q & A: Vicious blogs and doctrine ….”

Online: Question 2.

[31]Secret Message of Jesus, 74.

[32]The Story We Find Ourselves In, 150.  

[33]Secret Message of Jesus, 181.

[34]“Brian McLaren’s Inferno 2: Are we asking the wrong questions about hell?” in “Out of Ur.” Online:

[35]Secret Message of Jesus, 174-75.

[36]A New Kind of Christian, 127. The book, as in the later The Story We Find Ourselves In and The Last Word and the Word after That, presents a fictive dialogue, but in its main lines it clearly presents McLaren’s viewpoints. We will take into account that McLaren may use terms like “heaven and hell” interchangeably with the kingdom in its eschatological stage.

[37]In the Out of Ur website, May 11, 2006. Brian McLaren’s Inferno 3: Five proposals for reexamining our doctrine of hell. Online:

[38]McLaren, Inferno 2.

[39]Interview by Leif Hansen (The Bleeding Purple Podcast) with Brian McLaren, January 8th, 2006); Part 1. Online: http://bleeding purple podcast

[40]Finding Faith: A Self-Discovery Guide for Your Spiritual Quest (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 260. Emphasis in the original. Also The Story We Find Ourselves In, ch. 32—“When We Dream of That Kind of Future.”

[41]Last Word, 189; see also 85, 88.

[42]Last Word, scattered throughout the first part of the book, summarized on p. 85.

[43]See Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and Christ and Mythology (Reprint; New York: Scribner, 1958), 35-37.

[44]Last Word, xxvi.

[45]A New Kind of Christian, 124.

[46]Ibid., 127.

[47]Online: Also “Brian McLaren on the Homosexual Question: Finding a Pastoral Response,” in “Out of Ur” blog, Jan 23, 2006; “Out of Ur”: “Brian McLaren on the Homosexual Question 4: McLaren’s Response.” Online:; also Last Word, 43.

[48]See too Secret Message of Jesus, 75.

[49]Ibid., 94.

[50]Ibid., 95. See the whole of ch. 11, “The Open Secret.”

[51]See Secret Message of Jesus, 93 n. 1; also ch. 19.

[52]Last Word, 187.

[53]Finding Faith, 261.

[54]That is to say, with the publication of The Last Word and the Word after That (2005) and The Secret Message of Jesus (2006).

[55]See Secret Message of Jesus, 205-7.

14 thoughts on “Brian McLaren and Liberation Theology

  1. I’ve already documented this:you refer to “the well-known Marxist line, that ‘heaven’ is designed to keep the poor in their place”, and attribute it to Liberation Theology. About that vague, undocumented statement, you later said “I have no interest as to whether ‘pie in the sky’ language came from Marx himself or from Marxists”.

    Were the Liberation Theologians influenced by the “Marxists” you refer to without clarification, or by the thought of Marx himself and others like Gramsci y Ernst Bloch. Before accusing, you should have thought that through.

    If you pretend to discuss Marxism, you should have at least some interest in the thought of Marx.



  2. Juan – you’re faulting me for not tracking down the source of a quote which nowhere appears in my article. If that’s what you want to take away from this, if that’s what you wish to tell the world about my scholarship, you’re free do to so…I’d rather dialogue with people who wish to discuss what I actually wrote.

  3. Gary, I’ve told you several times my comments have to do only with your interpretation of Liberation Theology. It does not meet the minimum standards of theological integrity.

    Precisely as to your caricature of Liberation Theology, you said you have no interest in whether the idea of heaven as just a way to keep the poor in their place (which Rob summarized as pie in the sky) comes from Marx or from “Marxists” (which?). That’s appalling. Serious scholars work with sources.


  4. Hello again, Gary,

    Thanks for your frank reply. You understand correctly that I am deadly serious about theological integrity, as I articulated at length in the first chapter of Haciendo teología en América Latina. In my own student days, I was able to recognize that authors like Van Til or Karl Henry were grossly distorting the thought of Karl Barth, while Carnell, Ramm and Berkouwer first made an honest effort to understand him, and then evaluated him critically for what he actually believed. In the Triumph of Grace in the theology of Karl Barth, Berkouwer did this so well that he deserved honorable mention in the preface to the next volume of Barth’s Dogmatics, as the best volume that year on his theology.

    Lots of good magazines have accepted lots of bad articles. That Trinity Journal accepted your article says very little or nothing about how empathically you have interpreted Liberation Theology. It need mean no more than that your distorted stereotype corresponded to theirs.

    My objections to your article are not about McClaren or St. Paul. As to Liberation Theology, I do consider the article theologically dishonest; you consistently attack them for a caricature of what they believe. I’m sure that’s what Pablo Richards would say, or Irene Foulkes, and they would be right. Your reply now comes far short of proving the contrary.

    I’m appalled that you have no interest in Marx’s own thought, which should be a crucial element of any reference to Marxism. And your statement about “pie in the sky” is a distorted generalization about Marxism and a totally false description of Liberation Theology eschatology. Are you aware of the Christian-Marxist dialogue, and that there are Christian marxists who don’t fit your caricature?

    For about ten years at the National University, in my course on Theological Methodology, I had my students analyze a string of documents (Gaudium et Spes, Dutch Catechism, Medellin, Humanae generis, etc) to evaluate their exegesis, their theological methodology etc. As an evangelical, I avoided expressing my own opinions on each document. Almost all were Catholic priests, seminary graduates doing advanced degrees. My evaluation of Ratzinger’s Instruction is based on their criticisms.

    I cannot say whether your representation of McClaren’s theology is accurate, but you get off to a bad start by beginning with signs of prejudice before giving any of the evidence. You anticipate your conclusion with what I consider name-calling instead of analysis, and damnation by association, by declaring him “well into the camp of liberation thinking”. Then you somehow find something suspicious about his questioning not Paul but our interpretation of Paul. What could be wrong with that? Along the way, sarcastic remarks, like “On that point he equivocates more than usual”, give an impression of bias.

    To conclude, Gary: I hope you won’t write more articles like this one, and that this will not become a trend in ESEPA! I’m convinced ESEPA is capable of better things.

    Yours for Christ and the Gospel,


    1. I’ve said what I’ve said, Juan. “He equivocates more than usual” is I think an entirely fair description based on the evidence rather than a sarcastic comment. It is at least as unbiased as saying that “your distorted stereotype corresponded to [Trinity Journal’s]; or that the Ratzinger document was “largely a maneuver in Vatican politics”…a judgment of Ratzinger’s motivation. I do not judge McLaren’s motivation, only what he seems to hedge on.

      If you have an argument with the details of my interpretation of McLaren, Paul or other theologians, please offer them; that will be much more useful to me than your general reaction of distaste, or other generalizations such as that I supposedly have no interest in Marx – your statement, not mine. And please, let’s remember that I didn’t use the phrase “pie in the sky”, you and Rob did.

  5. It may be difficult to say “what liberation theologians think”, but Gary has obviously pretended to do so, and to denounce both TL and McClaren on the basis of his analysis, so he is responsible to be accurate and honest in his polemic against them. Two sources of his problem are (1) trying to do too much in one article, and (2) thinking in simplistic, stereotyped schemes (“the liberation camp”) and working with careless generalizations. Gary refers to Marxist influence in Liberation Theology without showing which Marxist ideas have influenced which liberation theologians and why these particular insights are bad rather than possibly good. It seems to be a naive stereotype.

    I wonder whether Gary has studied Ratzinger’s “Instruction on Liberation Theology”, the document which condemned liberation theology. For years I had my students at the National University analyze that document (almost all were priests), and they all agreed it is an extremely mediocre document, especially biblically. It was largely a maneuver in Vatican politics.

    One example of Gary’s careless accusations is his statement, totally without proof, that the liberation theologians pay less attention to Paul (about this more could be said), “perhaps because he was more theologian than doer of the kingdom, trapped in his own speculative Christology…”. This is pure speculation by Gary, without giving any evidence from their writings. But on the basis of that unfounded “perhaps”, Gary proceeds to associate TL with European liberalism (condemnation by association once again), not realizing that the two are radically different. This accusation alone shows how little Gary understands liberation theology.

    In the following paragraph Gary produces a caricature of liberation eschatology (they aren’t pre-milenial!) to come to the conclusion that “typically TL hews more closely to the well-known Marxist line, that ‘heaven’ is designed to keep the poor in their place”. First of all, that has to be documented and qualified from Marx’s own writings, which will not be easy. The young Marx also believed in a “utopia” with significant parallels to our Christian hope (and major differences). Then it must be shown that such an attitude actually characterizes liberation theology. Gustavo Gutiérrez, in his germinal work which inspired the movement, recognized the importance of eternal life. Gary’s statement grossly distorts the theology of his opponents.

    Within two paragraphs, Gary has made two irresponsible accusations. The article has many more.

    Universalism is neither an element of liberation theology nor an inevitable consequence of it. It is part of the liberal package, something very different. Most universalists are not liberationists, and many liberationists are not universalists. Tom Hanks, whom Gary classifies as a liberation theologian, has always been an ardent defender of final judgment. Oscar Arnulfo Romero believed in the Second Coming and, to my knowledge, in eternal life and divine judgment. Actually, liberation theology is much stronger when it affirms this final victory of divine justice.

    I’d also urge Gary to avoid in the future the tone that dominates in this article. Some passages seem flippant, with twinges of sarcastic humor, and too dogmatic. A humbler tone would represent our evangelical positions in a more worthy and convincing way.

    1. Hello Juan,

      A juried journal thought this was acceptable. That means what it means, no more and no less – God judges these things, finally – but I am comfortable thinking that a panel of scholars did not find my research or tone objectionable.

      I stand by my analysis of Brian McLaren. Please, do as I did, and read the entire canon of his material before accusing me of misrepresentation, a sin that I equate with “lying” and take very seriously. As far as tone, the reader may judge: I dealt with an author who is often thought of as being sarcastic and arrogant, and made a great effort (especially in successive drafts) not to take the same tone.

      I’m probably enough of a “modernist”, so-called, in believing that one can read texts and make sense of them. I invested hundreds of hours studying McLaren: all of his printed works, repeated times; all of his available online material on the topic, including articles, blogs and interviews; I offered to let him read a draft and respond, an offer he declined. If you can find where I have mistaken him, please point out where. McLaren is free to take me up on my original offer if he pleases.

      Liberation Theology, on the other, and as I mentioned more than once in the article, is a “broad church”. This means that I am not pretending to represent it in its entirety, but trying to interact with a limited number of published authors, particularly those who have written about eschatology. If I cannot make successful generalizations about all of liberation theology, that is the nature of the animal and cannot be laid at my doorstep.

      With regard to Marx, I have no interest as to whether “pie in the sky” language came from Marx himself or from Marxists (= Marx’s followers, which is how I used the term). The statement I made stands correct as it is. Nor do I believe that I owe Pablo Richard of Sabanilla an apology, seeing as I make no claim to understand or to represent his particular beliefs. I think I’ve represented Hanks properly, also Irene Foulkes, once one accepts that my interest in them was solely whether they thought homosexual practice could exclude people from the kingdom, according to 1 Cor 6:9-10.

      I’ve studied Ratzinger, of course – the essay you mention and other material. I read through that particular document with my students just this past term.

      By the way, your statement that Ratzinger’s “mediocre” document “was largely a maneuver in Vatican politics”…well, strikes me as an excellent example of not listening to one’s opponents and of judging them out of hand.

      Please think through all this before you make insinuations about my own ethics or ESEPA’s “direction”.

  6. All I’m asking for is fairness and accuracy in the description of our opponent’s thought,without distorting their theology. Is that asking too much? Theological integrity is crucial for our testimony in Latin America. Juan Stam

  7. Hi Gary,

    Thanks for sharing this article. Personally I think you’ve tried to do too much for one article. You have three main themes — Paul’s view of the kingdom and exclusion, theology of liberation and the theology of Brian McClaren. In my opinion, the exposition of Paul was systematic and convincing, that of McClaren less than adequate, and that of theology of liberation very inadequate and unfocused.

    You condemned both McClaren and liberation theologies in your introduction, before marshaling any evidence, and then went into a detailed exposition of Paul on Kingdom and exclusion, so that by the time you came to your two rivals, you had already rejected both. I would propose a better organization (assuming you include all three main themes): (1) an accurate presentation of how liberation theology understands the two issues, (2) an accurate presentation of those issues in McClaren; (3) your interpretation of Paul’s views (4) acknowledgement of points where LibTheol & McClaren coincide with Paul; (5) points where you believe each of them deviates from Paul’s view.

    Chapter II of my book Haciendo teología en América Latina (Vol I) is about the ethics and aesthetics of theological discourse. We theologians have an ethical responsibility to treat our opponents fairly, honestly, and not deal in caricatures. The person I criticize should have to admit that I have understood him or her and not misinterpreted their thought. I’m sure most liberation theologians would find your version of their theology far from accurate. I suggest you take your article to Pablo Richard, here in Sabanilla, and ask him if he can recognize himself and his colleagues in your mirror. I suspect he will say you have misrepresented him badly.

    Your analysis seems to have been determined by your polemical intention, with bad results. With all respect, I seriously hope you won’t write any more articles like this one, and that this article does not indicate future trends in ESEPA.

    For Christ and Latin America,

    Juan Stam

    1. Saludos Don Juan – I feel like you might be asking too much of the article. It sees to me that it is about kingdom exclusion in Paul, McLaren and Liberation Theology, and that seems like a fair limitation. Though it might also be true that dealing with anything that is “liberation theology” in about 1/3 of a journal article is a perilous exercise, just because LibTheo is such a large and amorphous area of thought (not mention the problem of whether there is even such a thing anymore). Perhaps it would have been better to focus on one LibTheo thinker. But because of this variety it seems to me that it is difficult to say either with Gary “this is what liberation theologians think” or with you “most liberation theologians don’t think this way”.

      Still, I find that the questions addressed in the article are very relevant, both to north american church culture and theology and also to latin american theology, where liberation themes run through many different theologies. I also think that the use of the kingdom as a paradigm for social transformation (this, surely we can attribute accurately to LibTheo and McLaren) will lead to questions of exclusion and inclusion. I often feel like these questions are hanging in the air. Bendiciones,

      1. Dear Rob, greetings!

        I submitted this article to several theological journals before Trinity Journal published it. The other journals responded that liberation theology was a dead issue, and that Brian McLaren was passé. Trinity published it after asking that I show why the issue is relevant today, for which reason I added the first paragraph or two and the material at the very end.

  8. Hi Gary – Great article. Congrats on getting it published.

    Some thought on the issues that perhaps underlie the conflict you are discussing in the article.

    You are touching on various issues that I have been thinking on, especially while preparing for my class “the social implications of the gospel” at SETECA last month. A couple thoughts here: While thinking through issues of social justice I found myself building on and relying very heavily on the the great commandment(s): Love of God and love of neighbor. R. Niebuhr points to the problem of emphasizing one or the other in sectarianism (God) and liberalism (fellowman). It was a fairly brief mention in Christ and Culture, and not that unique either, but it seems that we keep missing this. Sin is both godward and humanward. Even sins that are “only” godward also have human implications and impact. For example, idolatry is never solely an individual experience. It is regional and it is related to social networks. But that is not to say that idolatry is only bad because in the end it affects others. Idolatry is wrong because it is an offence against God. The pattern is always God first, then fellowman. So when it comes to injustice, it is first an offence to God, and it is primarily out of our allegiance to Him that we seek justice. Second, is it an offense against fellow human beings. If we lose track of this dual aspect of sin, I think we find ourselves sliding down the roof of the A-frame towards sectarianism or liberalism.

    Another important concept for me is the idea that all of human reality is social. You basically made this point when you called Brian to task for taking promiscuity as an individual sin, something to be minimized in comparison with social or systemic evil. Obviously, promiscuity is a social sin. Otherwise we would not be discussing it. It’s social dimensions are profound and impact every area of society. From abortion to welfare to divorce. This just illustrates that all our sin is social. So even though I love to rant against individualism, I am now saying more and more that while there is a point to be made, is it also true that individualism is a bit of a myth. We all find our meaning in social networks, even “individualists”. What we label individualism is really “flexibility in social networking” – lack of commitment to social givens, not lack of sociality. Our facebook buddies are more important than our weird old neighbors. That sort of thing.

    So all sin is social. There is continuity between the lie that I tell my neighbor and the advertising propaganda that promotes capitalism. The distinction between social and personal ethics could use a going over as well. They are almost too intertwined to distinguish. This also means that salvation is social. The life of discipleship will create a social reality and it looks forward to a social reality (I’m working with a resurrection / new world eschatology). But, again, we are not just talking about social vs. “spiritual” or manward vs. godward. We have to go back to the creational purpose, and this is where love of God and fellowman become so intertwined that they cannot be separated. God created a world in which humans would live in harmony with himself and other humans. And also the environment, to go further.

    Another point that concerns me and I have been chewing on is that it seems pretty clear that the “social” agenda of guys like Mclaren and many other evangelicals comes not from a theological or biblical source, or only comes from Scripture at an angle. The real motivation seems to be apologetic. In the last 30 years or so the polemic against otherworldly religion and against northern/western oppression has come to an almost fever pitch in some circles. I see a lot of people (not just thinkers but regular people) wanting to affirm that “Jesus is not that” (otherworldly, imperielist). He cared for the poor, he was accepting, he had a social agenda, he wasn’t just pie in the sky, etc. For example, a common way of talking about social justice is to say that we must treat people with dignity because they are fellow human beings. I’ve argued against this in the sense that while this is a really good point, it is not really a theological / biblical point. Of course, the biblical story would say something like this if we wanted it to: we are all created in God’s image. But is this the theological rationale provided by Scripture for social justice? Is the practice of justice sourced in our fellow-creatureliness? I don’t think so. The basic reason for the practice of justice is that God is just and therefore we also should be just if we are to be his imitators. It seems pretty clear to me that many evangelicals are baptizing a secular rationale.

    You can see this working out in McLaren and all his roadies (again, not just “thinkers” but people in the pew): The secular rationale sounds good but leads in directions that eventually clash with scripture, because it is not God in Scripture who provides their ethical imperative, but it comes, rather, from an ideology of equality. So, who are we to then say to gay people (who are “oppressed”) that their preference is not acceptable to God? They are fellow human beings they have the same rights as we do. Who are we to exclude anyone from entrance into the kingdom? They are fellow human beings. We all have the same rights. Don’t be an imperialist boarder patroller! The McLarenites might say. Exclusion of illegal immigrants = exclusion from the kingdom. The secular polemic against resisting illegals invades our theology making it questionable to exclude anyone from the kingdom.

    But if we back away from equality to an ethic sourced in the character of God and in his creative purposes, then the Christian ethic is no longer conflicted. We don’t have to equivocate about beliefs that are just too basic to be equivocating about.

  9. Shog,
    would it be correct to say (perhaps oversimplified) that in LT sin = force. Not “The Force” (cf. Lucas), but the state of not being able to make a choice?
    Some inabilities to choose are surely the consequence of sin (e.g. the poor have less choices often because of someone else’s greed). On the other hand some inabilities to choose come from neutral situations (e.g. I didn’t choose to be born) or natural limitations (e.g. I can’t play the banjo).
    Does LT see all inabilities to choose as oppression or is there a sliding scale?

    1. I think you’re on to it, Sherpa…at least as far as some LT goes. And I must say, LT has highlighted the crushing forces of institutional sin, which evangelicals typically underestimate.

      “Or is there a sliding scale”? Yes, there’s a range of opinions here. I don’t know of any LT who eliminates the element of personal decision…nevertheless, its significance may be lessened to a great degree, leaving it virtually “un-Christian” to discuss its importance.

      On the other hand, many evangelicals emphasize the individual’s decision to the detriment of other aspects of the faith.

      LT, like emergent theology, is a term that covers a wide range of thinkers, so it’s not easy to generalize. Emergent Christianity is an even broader category than LT! This is why comparing the two is like having straddling two canoes!

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