A Generous Orthodoxy | Notes

Posted on February 23, 2005


Brian D. McLaren. A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/calvinist + anabaptist/anglican + methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished Christian. Emergent YS, 2004. (297 pages)

A Generous Orthodoxy

Reviews by Albert Mohler, Bob DeWaay, R. Douglas Geivett, John M. Frame, Tim Chailles, Levi Felton, and John Goddard.

Generous Orthodoxy and a Changing World:

Forword by John R. Franke

…postmodern theory does not support the rejection of rationality but rather supports rethinking rationality in the wake of modernity. (10)

Several virtues of the book are particularly significant in the quest for generous orthodoxy. First, it maintains a focus on Jesus Christ as the center of the Christian faith. (12) Second, the centrality of Christ is combined with openness appropriate for generous orthodoxy. (12)

…exclusive in the sense of affirming the unique truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ, but not in the sense of denying the possibility of salvation to those outside the Christian faith; inclusive in the sense of refusing to limit the saving grace of God to Christians, but not int he sense of viewing other religions as salvific; pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but not in the sense of denying the unique and decisive nature of what God has done in Jesus Christ (Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society) (13)

Third, the tone of the book is honest, authentic, and self-critical. (13)

Generosity without orthodoxy is nothing, but orthodoxy without generosity is worse than nothing. – Hans Frei


What we need is something lived, not just talked or written about. (19)

…learning is not the consequence of teaching or writing, but rather of thinking. (23)

My own vision of what might be propitious for our day, split as we are, not so much into denominations as into [liberal/mainline and conservative/evangelical] schools of thought, is that we need a kind of generous orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism…and an element of evangelicalism. – Hans Frei, quoted by Dr. Stanley Grenz in Renewing the Center.

Chapter 0. For Mature Audiences Only

…orthodoxy in this book may mean something like “what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn.” Or it may mean “how we search for a kind of truth you can never fully get into your head, so instead you seek to get your head (and heart) into it.” (28)

In sum, this book sees orthopraxy as the point of orthodoxy. (31)

A generous orthodoxy of the kind explored in this book, 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 collaborators. (35)

…people who try to label me an exclusivist, inclusivist, or universalist on the issue of hell will find here only more reason for frustration. To them this categorization is essential for determining whether I’m orthodox (by their definition); but in my definition of orthodoxy, these terms and the question they seek to answer easily become “weapons of mass distraction.” (37)


Chapter 1. The Seven Jesuses I have Known

I am a Christian because I have a sustained and sustaining confidence in Jesus Christ. (43)

The first new Jesus I met had a difference face, a different tone, a different function. “Jesus was born to die,” I was told again and again, which meant his entire life…was quite marginalized. Everything between his birth and death was icing at most, assuredly not cake. (45)

THE CONSERVATIVE PROTESTANT JESUS. A legal metaphor: God is judge and humanity is guilty, deserving the death penalty. (46) An economic metaphor: God is the good master, and we are God’s servants, but we run away (or are lured away, perhaps kidnapped) by the Evil One, who makes us his slaves. (46) A governmental metaphor: The human race has rebelled against the King. (47) A military metaphor: The human race has been conquered by an alien power or powers (Sin, the Devil, and Death are the most common antagonists, although Paul’s more ambiguous “principalities and powers” could also be included). (47)

…that’s the way most Christians think. They just kind of bottom-line everything to heaven or hell, and that makes life feel kind of cheap. (49)


THE ROMAN CATHOLIC JESUS. The Eucharist is a constant celebration of good news, a continual rendezvous with the risen Christ, and through him, with God. (54)

THE EASTERN ORTHODOX JESUS. I learned that the early church leaders described the Trinity using the term perichoresis (peri-circle, choresis-dance): the Trinity was an eternal dance of Father, Son, and Spirit sharing mutual love, honor, happiness, joy, and respect. (56)

If the Evangelical Jesus saves by dying, the Pentecostal Jesus by sending his Spirit, and the Catholic Jesus by rising from death, the Eastern Orthodox Jesus saves simply by being born, by showing up, by coming among us. (56)



The Jesus of the Oppressed.

Perhaps we could summarize using this table (The Seven Jesuses.pdf, The Seven Jesuses.jpg):

Type of Christian Focus/Problem Good News
Conservative Protestant The human race is guilty of sin and wrongdoing. Jesus’ death pays the full penalty for human sin
Pentecostal The human race is held down by disease and poverty. Jesus teaches us how to receive miracles and healings from God through faith in God’s promises.
Roman Catholic The human race is enslaved by the fear of death. Jesus’ resurrection defeats death and liberates humanity.
Eastern Orthodox The human race is spiritually sick and needs healing; it has dropped out of the “dance” of creation. Jesus’ entry (or incarnation) into humanity and history brings God’s healing to the human race and all of creation.
Liberal Protestant The human race suffers from ignorance of the teachings and ways of Christ. Jesus’ example and teachings inspire us to work compassionately for social justice.
Anabaptist The human race is divided and violent and needs to learn the ways of Christ in community. Jesus convenes a learning community of disciples who seek to model lives of love and peace.
Liberation Theology (nonviolent) Humanity is oppressed by corrupt powers, systems, and regimes Jesus commissions and leads bands of activists to confront unjust regimes and make room for the shalom of God.

You could say I’m finding a new simplicity on the far side of complexity. I am a Christian because I believe the real Jesus is all that these sketches reveal and more. (66)

Chapter 2. Jesus and God B

I am a Christian because I have confidence in Jesus Christ–in all his dimensions (those I know, and those I don’t). (69)

For too many people the name Jesus has become a symbol of exclusion, as if Jesus’ statement “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” actually means, “I am in the way of people seeking truth and life. I won’t let anyone get to God unless he comes through me.” (70)

Chapter 3. Wold Jesus Be a Christian?

If you knew what a mean son of a gun I am, you’d realize why I need to be a pacifist.

After studying church history, I can see why people believe in hell. I just can’t figure out why all Christians don’t go there. (80)

Lord means “master” (the very opposite of mascot)… (80)

Chapter 4. Jesus: Savior of What?

God, throughout the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call, perhaps unwisely, the Old Testament), repeatedly saves from danger and evil, so to say that God saves means that God intervenes to rescue. (93)

Sometimes God saves by judging. (93)

Forgiveness without conviction is not forgiveness: it is irresponsible toleration. … Conversely, judgment without mercy is not salvation, but condemnation. (95)

Growing numbers of people share Vincent Donovan’s (and my own) discomfort with this self-and hell-centered approach to salvation for a number of reasons:

  1. Can’t seeking my personal salvation as the ultimate end become the ultimate consumerism or narcissism? (99)
  2. Doesn’t being preoccupied with our own individual salvation put us in danger of being like selfish people on the Titanic who were scrambling for the life rafts, more concerned about themselves than others?
  3. Doesn’t the very importance of my personal salvation pose a kind of temptation–to want heaven more than I want good; to want escape from hell more than I want true reconciliation to God or my neighbors?
  4. And doesn’t the preoccupation with hell tempt us to devalue other things that matter?

In the ways we’ve considered in these chapters, Jesus needs to be saved from Christians who have slimmed him down or fattened him up or otherwise converted him into our own image. Can we trust Jesus to save himself from the mess we’ve made of his name, and in so doing, save Christianity? If not, there is no orthodoxy to be generous about. (101)


Chapter 5. Why I Am Missional

To be and make disciples of Jesus Christ in authentic community for the good of the world.

Christianity As We Know It

Christianity As We Know It

MIssional Christianity

Missional Christianity

Lesslie Newbigin, one of the theologians who has helped me most (and whose first name often misleads people regarding his gender), used to say that the greatest heresy (false, destructive, divisive belief) in  monotheism results form taking the first half of God’s call to Abraham (I will bless you, I will make your name and nation great) and neglecting or rejecting the second half (I will make you a blessing, all nations will be blessed through you). Do you see the tragic difference? Any form of Christianity that takes the first part of God’s call to Abraham more seriously than the second is not missional, as I’m using the term here. Neither is it generous or truly orthodox! (110)

Remember, in a pluralistic world, a religion is valued based on the benefits it brings to its nonadherents.

Rumors like this make me want to be an exclusivist who believes that only universalists go to heaven–after all, they have the highest opinion possible about the efficacy and scope of the saving work of Jesus! Or else I could be an inclusivist who believes that all but exclusivists are going to heaven. (114)

But I’m more interested in a gospel that is universally efficacious for the whole earth before death in history. … More important to me than the hell question, then, is the mission question. (114)

Chapter 6. Why I Am evangelical

I hope evangelical can become an inclusive and positive term, rather than a sectarian and restrictive one–an essential element of a generous orthodoxy. (121)

Chapter 7. Why I Am Post/Protestant

Protestant as Protest.

Protestant as Pro-Testifying. What if we were to redefine protestant as pro-testifying, pro meaning “for” and testify meaning “telling our story”? What if Protestants switch their focus from protesting what they’re against to telling the story about what they’re for? | Do we even know what we’re for? (127)

Chapter 8. Why I Am Liberal/Conservative

And how many of you wish there could be a third alternative, something beyond the confiding boxes of liberal and conservative? (131)

When I imagine what a generous orthodoxy can become, I realize I must seek to honor both conservative and liberal heroism. And when I do, I want to consider myself both liberal and conservative. I must learn from their mistakes, and when I do, I don’t want to be boxed in either category. Instead they can look up for a higher way and look ahead to the new fields of opportunity and challenge that stretch form here to the horizon, where the terms post-conservative and post-liberal may be helpful for a while, and then the whole polarizing vocabulary can be, I hope, forgotten. (140)

Chapter 9. Why I Am Mystical/Poetic

A generous orthodoxy, in contrast to the tense, narrow, controlling, or critical orthodoxies of so much of Christian history, doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is humble; it doesn’t claim to much; it admits it walks with a limp. It doesn’t consider orthodoxy the exclusive domain of prose scholars (theologians) alone but, like Chesterton, welcome the poets, the mystics, and even those who choose to say very little or to remain silent, including the disillusioned and the doubters. (155)

This mystical/poetic approach takes special pains to remember that the Bible itself contains precious little expository prose. Rather it is story laced with parable, poem interwoven with vision, dream and opera (isn’t this the best contemporary genre to compare to the book of Job?), personal letter and public song, all thrown together with an undomesticated and unedited artistic passion. Even Paul, who, at the hands of lawyers like Luther and Calvin comes out looking (we shouldn’t be surprised) like a lawyer–and who at the hands of prose scholars comes out sounding like a prose scholar–needs to be reappraised in this regard. Have you noticed how he resorts to poetry in Romans 11, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1? (155)

Chapter 10. Why I Am Biblical

To say Scripture is God-breathed is, then, to elicit this primal language of creation. (161)

Sadly, sometimes the very people who most love the Bible have been those who have used it for these other purposes, sometimes to the neglect of its essential purpose. (165)

I need to be forthcoming, though and admit that the Bible has not only been an inestimable blessing to me: it has also been a problem. The more I learn from Jesus, the more I cringe when I read passages in Exodus or Joshua where the God of love and universal compassion to whom Jesus has introduced me allegedly commands with today we would call brutality, chauvinism, ethnic cleansing, or holocaust. I ache when biblical passages are used to reinforce and escapist, deterministic, or fatalistic view of the future, to assert the subjugation of women by men, or to justify a careless attitude toward our beautiful God-given planet. When I introduced the Bible to my friends outside the church, these things jump out of them, and they wonder how “a nice guy” like me to be so excited about what seems to them a barbaric book. (166)

I try to explain that the problem isn’t the Bible, but our modern assumptions about the Bible and our modern interpretive approaches to it. I try to explain that there is a better way to understand and apply the Bible, a largely new and unexplored way that can be summarized like this: We need to reclaim the Bible as narrative. (166)

The Bible is a story, and just because it recounts (by standards of accuracy acceptable to its original audience) what happened, that doesn’t mean it tells what should always happen or even what should have happened. (167)

Chapter 11. Why I Am Charismatic/Contemplative

Chapter 12. Why I Am Fundamentalist/Calvinist

So with those fundamentals of love, what is worth fighting against and for? So much. But unfortunately, so much of what we’re currently fighting against (“we” meaning the church in America for starters) isn’t the real enemy, and so much of what we’re fighting for isn’t the real prize. (185)

Reformed Christian is a misnomer; reforming Christian would be more accurate. (190)

Chapter 13. Why I Am (Ana)baptist/Anglican

Anabaptists emphasize personal commitment.

Anabaptists see the Christian faith primarily as a way of life.

Anabaptists have taken a radical posture in relation to modernity.

Anabaptists have lived and worked in the margins.

Anabaptists have made Jesus Christ central.

Anabaptists seek to practice peace.

Anabaptists have practiced “community in creation.”

Compromise (like tolerance) is a dirty word for many Christians. ..compromise and tolerance suggest keeping a high (uncompromised!) standard of unity and a high level of respect for your brothers and sisters who disagree with you. (211)

Chapter 14. Why I Am Methodist

Chapter 15. Why I Am catholic

About creeds, Chesterton has this to say: “Whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth…When one once believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in  discoveries. If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it’s elaborately right. A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident. But a key and a lock are both complex. And if the key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.” (Orthodoxy, 87).

…disciples are apostles-in-training; Christian discipleship (or spiritual formation) is training for apostleship, training for mission. (223)

Against this kind of elitism others said, “No. We want you reformers to be part of us, but we aren’t going to join you if it means excluding everyone else. We believe God wants the Christian church to be an accepting, welcoming  community, not an exclusive, elitist community. We’ll go on being the church for all the people you reject. We’ll be catholic–the accepting, welcoming church for everyone, not just an exclusive, elite few.” (225)

Catholicism is sacramental.

Catholicism is liturgical.

Catholicism respects tradition.

Catholicism celebrates Mary.

Catholics know how to party.

Catholicism can’t escape from its scandals.

Chapter 16. Why I Am Green

The standard, stagnant theology of creation/fall is giving way to a more vigorous theology of continual creation.

The eschatology of abandonment is being succeeded by an engaging gospel of the kingdom.

Increased concern for the poor and oppressed leads to increased concern for all of creation.

There is a succession in our understanding of ownership.

There is a succession from local/national to global/local.

A new understanding of neighborliness is replacing an old sense of rugged (a.k.a.., selfish) individualism.

Chapter 17. Why I Am Incarnational

Jesus threatened people with inclusion: if they were to be excluded, it would be because they refused to accept their acceptance. (247)

Any man who preaches real love is bound to beget hate…Real love has always ended in bloodshed. – G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 143

Just as Jesus’ incarnation bound him, not just to the Jewish people, but to all humanity, his incarnation links his followers to all people–including… (WARNING…) people of other religions. (249)

Our Christian identity must not make us afraid of, superior to, isolated from, defensive or aggressive toward, or otherwise hostile to people of other religions. Rather, the reverse. (249)

No. The Christian faith, I am proposing, should become (in the name of Jesus Christ) a welcome friend to other religions of the world, not a threat. … Just as Jesus came originally not to destroy the law but to fulfill it, not to condemn people but to save them, I believe he comes today not to destroy or condemn anything (anything but evil) but to redeem and save everything that can be redeemed or saved. (254)

If, as a Christian, I am to love my neighbor as myself and to treat my neighbor as I would be treated, then without question one of my duties in regard to my neighbor of another religion is to value everything that is good that he offers me in neighborliness–including the opportunity to learn all I can from his religion. Another duty is to offer everything I have that could be of value to him–including the opportunity to learn from my religion if he can. This is not a compromise of my faith or his; this is a required practice of it. (255)

We must accept the coexistence of different faiths in our world willingly, not begrudgingly.

Having acknowledged and accepted the coexistence of other faiths, Christians should actually talk with people of other faiths, engaging in gentle and respectful dialogue.

We must assume that God is an unseen partner in our dialogues who has something to teach all participants, including us.

We must learn humility in order to engage in respectful dialogue.

We must realize that each religion is its own world, requiring very different responses from Christians.

Only at this point are we ready to reassert that conversation does not exclude evangelism but makes it possible.

…do not try to call them back to where they were, and do not try to call them to where you are, as beautiful as that place might seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever seen before. – Vincent Donovan

We must continually be aware that the “old, old story” may not be the “true, true story.”

We must live with a paradox.

I am here to love them, to seek to understand them, and to share with them everything of value that I have found or received that they would like to receive as well. I am here to receive their gifts to me with equal joy–to enjoy life in God’s world with them, to laugh and eat and work with then, so we we play with one another’s children and hold one another’s babies and dance at one another’s weddings and savor one another’s hospitality. (263)

I am more and more convinced that Jesus didn’t come merely to start another religion to compete in the marketplace of other religions. If anything, I believe he came to end standard competitive religion (which Paul called “the law”) by fulfilling it; I believe he came to open up something beyond religion – a new possibility, a realm, a domain, territory of the spirit that welcomes everyone but requires everyone (now including members of the Christian religion) to think again and become like little children. It is not, like too many religions, a place of fear and exclusion but a place beyond fear and exclusion. It is a place where everyone can find a home in the embrace of God. (266)

Chapter 18. Why I Am Depressed-Yet-Hopeful

Chapter 19. Why I Am Emergent

Chapter 20. Why I Am Unfinished

…orthodoxy isn’t a destination. It is a way–a way on which one journeys, and on which one progresses, eve if one never (in this life) arrives. (291)

To be in this creatio continua, this ongoing and emerging creation…

a little, but not yet. … curvy orthodoxy. (293)

all these years of pursing orthodoxy ended up like this–in front of all this glory understanding nothing. (294)

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