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Can't Christians be Questians?

by Jay Gary, PhD, Feb 19, 2010

nkc_mI continue to read McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, alongside blogs interacting with his book and bounce it off friends. Here is a recent Ooze streaming media of McLaren talking about his book.

The issues McLaren raises are worth exploring, because theology must always be ongoing, given new things are placed on its agenda. He aspires to keep biblical faith in a new context.

I respond to McLaren as a person of faith who realizes that both tradition and innovation have always worked hand in hand to shape the ancient-future faith of new generations.

Yes, McLaren is a popular writer. He writes to popular leadership audiences, not academics. Some traditional scholars are frustrated by his generalizations, in comparison to their narrow academic specializations. While McLaren’s activist orientation wouldn’t normally place him at the annual Evangelical Theological Society, he is usually current with academic arguments and research.

In 1990 Naisbitt released Megatrends 2000. It was fresh, but most recognized it as pop treatment of the future, not a deep critical understanding of America, based on economic or sociological analysis. Yet Naisbitt was a starting point for conversation on what the new century meant. So too is McLaren, but with a twist, unlike Naisbitt, he is self-aware of paradigms as filters.

paradigms_lThomas Kuhn (1962) noted that in historical retrospect, science is done paradigmatically. It goes through seasons of ‘revolutionary’ science, punctuated by stable periods of equilibrium or ‘normal’ science.

Hans Küng (1988) asserted how paradigm change in theology (see diagram, click here for sharp pdf.) has produced four constellations of macro-theology within Christianity (Ancient, Medieval, Reformation, Modern) in distinction from its founding Kingdom paradigm in the first-century. Küng argues that a ‘contemporary’ paradigm in Christianity beyond these prevailing thought systems is forming in our time.

This contemporary paradigm, which began to take shape by the mid-20th century, arises from the deep failures of modern institutions to protect human dignity and venture (Wishard, 2000). We live in ‘revolutionary’ times, paradigmatically speaking, whether there ever was a McLaren. We must lead the church from the future, not just the past.

For this reason Küng claims we must always keep our paradigm of the church and theology both “centered” and on the “horizon” (p. 222). He asks:

1. Centered: Is this paradigm of religion– measured against the Gospel of Jesus Christ as norm–really in keeping with the Scriptures?

2. Horizon: Is this paradigm–measured against the paradigm of society as such–still up to date?

We should not make McLaren the focus, but consider the process of engaging McLaren as a locus of what Küng considers to be responsible historico-critically thinking that helps reciprocal communication among macro paradigms (p. 223).

As Küng affirms, there should always be a defined center to Christianity, as well as a horizon, or fresh ways in which we sense God speaking to our generation, in view of our context.

Jesus tasked his followers to maintain this locus between tradition and innnovation, ‘for everyone instructed in the kingdom should bring out of the storeroom something new as well as old’ (Matt 13:52).

I speak of innovation here in the broadest of terms. Any understanding of history will show that new ideas, best practices, even better ways of viewing Scripture have not just come from the center, but also the periphery of faith. Given the information revolution and the explosion of learning, we stand at beginning of the democratization of religion. This means that innovation in religion will continue to increase exponentially.

Bosch (1991) refers to the convergence between tradition and innovation as contextualization, and agrees with Küng that there is an emerging paradigm in Christian mission that compels theology to biblically and deeply engage culture and history (Nussbaum, 2005).

In other words, the ’emergent church’ which McLaren speaks out of is one thread in a larger tapestry of intentional shifts in western culture, history, and spirituality, that aim to be more holistic and empowering.

When faced with a plurality of responses to his own mission Jesus told his followers, “whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). Later the Gospel writers demonstrated this principle by creating both synoptic and divergent treatments of Jesus. These emerged well before the full Gnostic views, with Matthew, Mark and Luke taking similar views but John diverging. Both synoptic and divergent views were faithful to Jesus as witnesses and followers.

Whether you embrace McLaren’s divergent-emergent view or not, he stands in a long line of those focused on the image of Christ in their thought culture, who both illuminated it as well as obscured it (Pelikan, 1985). Every human paradigm both reveals and conceals.

Based on Kuhn, Küng, and Bosch, we should not uncritically embrace McLaren, but neither should we dismiss his questions. There is no reason we can’t be both Christians and Questians (Dahl).

As sure as there is tomorrow, there will be divergent paradigms in Christian ministry, that both question our epistemology and practice. We are called to engage them, with a proper measure of affirmation and critique. Grenz and Franke (2001) establish this locus of community as theology’s orientating motif.

How do you see it? What questions should Christians be asking themselves as a community to lead the church into the future?


Bosch, D. J. (1991). Transforming mission: Paradigm shifts in theology of mission. American Society of Missiology series). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Grenz, S. J., & Franke, J. R. (2001). Beyond foundationalism: Shaping theology in a postmodern context. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Küng, H. (1988). Theology for the third millennium: An ecumenical view. New York: Doubleday.

Nussbaum, S. (2005). A reader’s guide to transforming mission. American Society of Missiology series). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Pelikan, J. J. (1985). Jesus through the centuries: His place in the history of culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Wishard, W. V. D. (2000). Between two ages: The 21st century and the crisis of meaning. XLibris.

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