Friday, February 23, 2007

Response to David Hesselgrave in EMQ Jan 07

A Response to David Hesselgrave’s “Brian McLaren’s Contextualization of the Gospel” Evangelical Mission Quarterly, January 2007

Professor David J. Hesselgrave, professor emeritus of mission at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School published a critique on Brian McLaren’s contextualization of the gospel. It is commendable that someone of Professor’s Hesselgrave stature should examine McLaren’s contextualization theory.

First, Hesselgrave started his introduction by comparing McLaren to his former undergraduate adviser, Dr. Paul Holmer. Both are prone to making provocative and confusing statements. Hesselgrave went on to quote McLaren as going out of his way “to be provocative, mischievous and unclear.” This would have made Hesselgrave’s task very difficult because he has to shift through McLaren’s statements to differentiate that which is intentionally provocative and intentionally unclear. Hence Hesselgave cannot take every statement of McLaren to mean exactly what McLaren believes. It is hoped that Hesselgrave, as a good scholar, would have consulted McLaren as to the “correctness” of Hesselgrave’s interpretation of his statement.

Second, Hesselgrave based his paper on two of McLaren’s books; A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on Spiritual Journey (2001) and A Generous Orthodoxy (2004) and on Edwin Frizen, Jr’s 75 Years of IFMA 1917-1972 (1992). Frizen’s book gave a historical account of IFMA (Interdenominational Foreign Missions Association)’s history and can be considered to contain “a full fledged statement of faith (SOF)” of the IFMA (94). McLaren’s books can not be considered by any stretch of imagination to be SOF documents. A New Kind of Christian is written as an imaginative novel, which McLaren has stated elsewhere is not autobiographical. A Generous Orthodoxy is a book of personal reflection and is also not a SOF. Therefore it will not be correct to compare and contrast the three books and critique them academically. A critique of contextualization should have included all of McLaren’s publications. McLaren never claimed to represent the emerging church movement so it cannot be said, as it is often in the paper that what he believes represented the emerging church movement. The emerging church movement is a loose collection of people with diverse practices and beliefs.

Third, Hesselgrave has chosen to examine McLaren’s contextualisation of the gospel in four areas, (1) mission, (2) believing, (3) belonging, and (4) becoming.

(1) ‘McLaren’s New “Missional Mission”’

Hesselgrave writes, “McLaren says that “missional” means that the Church should first reflect on its mission in the world and then allow its theology to flow out of that reflection rather than first reflecting on theology and allowing its understanding of mission to flow out of theology (2004, 105-106).” My own copy of McLaren’s book must be different because its pagination is different. However on page 115 of my copy (2004), McLaren writes that it was David Bosch, Lesslie Newbigin and Vincent Donovan who wrote “rather than seeing missiology as a study within theology, theology is actually a discipline within Christian mission. Theology is the church on a mission reflecting on its message, its identity, its meaning.” Practical theology is not new nor is limited to McLaren. Others are studying its applications (Schleiermacher 1966; Browning 1991; Heitink 1999).

As a follow-on thought on McLaren’s missional mission statement that all are called to be “followers of Jesus,” Hesselgrave quotes McLaren, “Buddhists who “feel so called will become Buddhist followers of Jesus” and they should be given by that opportunity and invitation” (2004, 264). However, in his book, McLaren is writing about incarnational living which may involve influencing them to be followers of Jesus. McLaren is not talking about conversion but incarnational evangelism (McLaren 1999, 150-157). In the analysis for this section, I agree with Hesselgrave that his disagreement with McLaren’s mission and missiology “is not just hermeneutical; it is epistemological.”(95).

(2) ‘New Ways of Believing Scripture’

Here, the focus was on the way McLaren reads Scripture. A good example to use is to describe the way McLaren reads Scripture is the comparison in the Old Testament in reading the ‘letter’ and the ‘spirit’ of the Law. The difference is in the way which Hesselgrave and McLaren view revelation from the Bible. Hesselgrave believes, “revelation occurred when the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible authors to write scripture, not when the Holy Spirit enables readers to discover its truth at some deeper or highest level.” (97). McLaren believes that the Holy Spirit nowadays can lead readers of the Bible into greater spiritual truth and understanding. Again the difference between the two is hermeneutical and epistemological.

(3) ‘New Ways of Belonging: The Church’

In his concept of church as a community, McLaren welcomes everybody. Hesselgrave argues that Church is for believers only. Again there is a difference in definition. McLaren takes church (with a small ‘c’) to refer to a community of believers, seekers and others. McLaren writes that he is not a Universalist.

(4) ‘New Way of Becoming: Becoming a Christian.’

Hesselgrave mentions that “McLaren prefers to think and speak in terms of conversations rather than conversions.”(99). This may be a misinterpretation of McLaren. McLaren normally uses the term conversation to denote dialogue rather than conversion or evangelism. He also questioned the ‘simple step of conversion by praying the sinner’s prayer’ and suggests a longer period of conversion and sanctification. Hesselgrave continues, “And, according to him, becoming good is more a process than a point: more a matter of following than a gradual transformation than radical turning (2001, chaps.8-9; 204, 254). Therefore I believe Hesselgrave is right in pointing out that McLaren has much in common with Horace Bushnell “who also criticized evangelical individualism, revivalism, and conversionism.”

Finally, Hesselgrave may be mistaken to consider McLaren and other members of the emerging church movement as “following the lead of twentieth century liberals when they insists on accommodating postmodernism by resisting biblical authority and replacing the biblical gospel with another gospel of whatever derivation.”(100). The battles with the liberals were over long ago.

This paper reveals a lot about the different hermeneutical methodologies and epistemological grounds of these two men[1]. It also shows their modern and postmodern worldviews respectively (Erickson 2002, 59-86). In a way, it reflects the ongoing conversations or the discussions between those who are positive towards the emerging church movement and those who are against. This reminds us of the conversation about whether Gentile believers must be circumcised or not. Unfortunately we do not have a wise Jerusalem Council to offer us guidance. However, we do echo Gamaliel II, who when asked about the followers of the Way declared, “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39 NIV)


Browning, D. (1991). A Fundamental Practical Theology:Descriptive and Strategic Proposals. Minneapolis, Fortress Press.
Erickson, Millard. J. The Post Modern World: Discerning the Times and the Spirit of our Age. Wheaton, IL, Crossway Books
Heitink, G. (1999). Practical Theology: History, Theory, and Action Domains. Grand Rapids, MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans.
McLaren, B. D. (1999). Finding Faith. Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan.
McLaren, B. D. (2001). A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two friends on a Spiritual Journey. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
McLaren, B. D. (2004). A Generous Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan.
Schleiermacher, F. (1966). Brief Outline on the study of Theology. Richmond, VA, John Know Press.
Tomlinson, D. (2003). The Post-Evangelical (Revised North American Edition). Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan.


[1] Dave Tomlinson, vicar of St. Luke’s Anglican Church in North London writes, “For evangelicals, truth is rarely seen as problematic. Truth not expressed literally is usually not true at all. Post-evangelicals, on the other hand, feel uneasy with such a cut-and-dried approach and find themselves towards a more relative understanding of truth.” Tomlinson, D. (2003). The Post-Evangelical (Revised North American Edition). Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan. p.93. While Hesselgrave is an evangelical scholar, I believe Brian McLaren will consider himself as post-evangelical.

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Blogger Sivin Kit said...

wow ... looks like you've been busy in CNY! I've been busy reading Alister McGrath's The Science of God and found some helpful ways forward in terms of epistemological understandings from within a more "western" framework. I still do have some unresearched hunches about where does Chinese philosophy and the Chinese mind may also contribute to this discussion but I need more time to gather my scattered thoughts. But reading Robert Schreiter's The New Catholicity has been helping me to see some of the local and global connections when it comes to theology and hermeneutics specifically.

as for "evangelical", I still recall Brian using the small "e" version to refer to himself and I suspect many of us would delight to do the same when it's connected with the Good News we wish to share and embody. Coming from my own Lutheran tradition, I found my self-definition of being "evangelical" closer to Luther and the Pietist definitions than IFMA (and yet I do not see we have to be that far apart unless those like Prof. Hesselgrave wish to make a sharper distinction). I also see the Lausanne Covenant and John Stott's commentary on it reflecting a more generous and inclusive statement where Christians can sign up on. The WCC ecumenical statement of Mission and Evangelism is also one document which I found myself saying "Amen" to.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi sivin,

Sometimes we can be so caught up with the certain distinctness of our tradition or our organisation that we missed the forest for the trees. We need to be reminded that we all see "through a glass darkly."

What I would really like is to see is someone with Hesselgrave's experience and wisdom suggest a possible alternative to McLaren's contextualisation if he felt McLaren is wrong. It will be such a great benefit to the church.


11:18 PM  
Blogger Sivin Kit said...

perhaps the "alternative" which is appropriate for our time and space currently is a project all of us participate in with humble baby steps. It would always be even better when there are those wiser cheering us on.

Someone did that for me when I was at my most vulnerable moment. for that I'm eternally grateful

1:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Alex,

This has been quite a thoughtful and well-reasoned response.

I am impressed by your scope and width of knowledge and the time you have taken with your research.

I am wondering how you are able to have access to so many books? They ARE expensive.


7:24 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi sivin,

I am interested in the 'alternative' i.e. how do we contextualise the gospel in the Asian especially the Malaysian context. Could you suggest some books or people involved in this area? Thanks.


1:26 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi EJ,

Thanks for your kind comments. I prefer to buy books rather than borrow because I can mark them and write comments on them. I have been buying Christian books for more than 30 years so I have have quite a number of them.

Nowadays I buy my books from SKS Christian book warehouse in Singapore (the highlight of each month is when I drive over to Singapore for my monthly book shopping. I live in Johor Bahru, Malaysia which is near Singapore) and from the online bookstores.

I find the online bookstores have the selection of books I am interested in. I mainly frequent and some of the university bookstores online like Regent and Melbourne.

For some of the harder to find books, I try to find it on used bookstores online and from Singapore Bible College interlibrary loans.

Books ARE expensive! Thank God I have a understanding wife and I do not have many expensive habits like smoking, drinking (alcohol), and socialising.


1:37 PM  
Anonymous alwyn said...

i usually use - but i still wince at the USD8 shipping cost(!)

i think Hesselgrave, Carson et al vis-a-vis McLaren demonstrate the importance of 'starting points' in our theologising etc. Notice how in order to respond (fully) to Hesselgrave requires us to revisit MANY assumptions, redefine terms, seek clarifications, and so on, triggering yet more debate on *those* areas...taking us further away from the original issue about contextualisation...

could this be why Jesus avoided argument as his primary tool of discourse, and went straight for counter-question, subversive story, embodied proclamation, etc.?

12:22 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi alwyn,

I agree with you that many misunderstanding/argument stems from the fact that we approach the subject with different definitions or assumptions. A lot of pain and hurt could be avoided if we listen, really listen to what the other person is saying before we jump into the offensive.

Jesus teaching in parable can be very confusing. It is changing of mental models. See my posting on Jesus' way of spiritual formation. Will really like to hear your point of view on that.

4:48 PM  
Anonymous alwyn said...

being in the 'learning industry' myself (and having had Senge's 5th Discipline thrust at me by my directors! *grin*), I lean naturally towards any comparison of Jesus' work/life/thought/actions w that of contemporary writers on learning, thinking, etc. did u know that - irony of ironies - Senge himself is recommending 'spirituality' as an organisational value?! :)

it's certainly worthwhile looking into some of the points you/Senge mentioned; i particularly like 'changing mental models', 'modelling', 'systems thinking'.

10:44 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi alwyn,

Thank you for your encouraging words. I am exploring how Senge's 'learning organisation' can be applied to our church context. So it is nice to have someone from the 'learning industry' to check with.

The interesting thing is, I have submitted a more comprehensive article of Jesus using the 'learning organisation' to a pretigious Christian Education Journal. The reviewers'response were "Who is Peter Senge and why should we listen to him?". Wow.


12:52 AM  
Anonymous alwyn said...

a bit of the pseudo-dualistic mentality perhaps? or maybe the person was concerned we might 'dilute' the Gospel?

there is - if you've noticed - a growing 'split' in evangelicalism/Christianity between those who are more adventurous, who see 'outside' resources more optimistically AND those who view them as signs of 'selling out' to the world. needless to say, networks like emergent lean more towards the former kind...?

11:21 AM  
Anonymous ej said...

Hi Dr. Alex,

Thanks for sharing about yourself and your really patience and understanding wife :D

I hope to be able to follow in your's and alwyn's footsteps when it comes to books.

If I may add to the evolved conversation, folks like Alister McGrath N.T. Wright have no qualms of adopting critical realism when even if its major proponents are 'outside'. I'm relieved that folks like the both you are more adventurous to the 'outside'.

(At the same time I am saddened at some self-styled local 'apologists' who smugly declare such outreach as an accommodation to the spirit of the age.)

Now I'll have to google up Peter Senge! Thanks for your posts on Lent seasons posts on Spirituality.

7:44 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi alwyn,

I guess there have always been the "mainliner" and those on the "outside" or the "fringe". Those who cling to the "purity' of their tradition and those who plunder the Egyptians. Usually those who wants to maintain their "purity" develops a siege mentality. The other groups are explorers and wanderers.


1:05 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi ej,

welcome. Thanks for your comments. Do I detect another booklover. Yippee, that is good.

Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright and many others are courageous enough to write what they mean and to explore new territory. May be you one of them.


1:09 AM  
Blogger Sivin Kit said...

Looks like i've been missing a lot of good conversations here.

You can do it face to face on Friday :-) with food in your mouth

12:27 AM  
Anonymous Gregg Harris said...

I appreciate your response Dr. Tang. However your reference to Gamalaliel's advice at the end made me cringe. Gamalaliel's counsel was by no means inspired by God even though it favored the infant church at the time. It is a true quote of a wrong headed elder of Israel. Every cult that goes on to thrive in our confused world could claim to be of God by his lights. The elders of the church are charged with guarding the doctrine of the church, and as I have studied McLaren, he is just another affable liberal heretic who has confused popularity with the masses with orthodoxy to the faith. He seems to be unfaithful to God because he enjoys the applause of the young hip Christians of the emerging church. Please don't be afraid to call a doctrinal spade a doctrinal spade my brother. Let the good example of J. Gresham Machen in Christianity & Liberalism inspire you to a fiercer defense of the faith.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi Gregg Harris,

Thank you for your comments, Gregg. I shall take your advice about calling a doctrinal spade a spade :) Shalom.

1:58 PM  
Anonymous journeyman said...

Interesting and very relevant conversation.

Wondered if seeking the absolute truth was less important than doctrinal truth and maintaining the faith?

Is the reason d'etre the destination or the journey.

Spreading the good news with conversation or "encouraging conversion?"

8:48 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi Journeyman,

Wondered if seeking the absolute truth was less important than doctrinal truth and maintaining the faith?

Good question. Absolute truth may approximate doctrinal truth but our infinite mind may never totally grasp absolute truth. This is something, defenders of propositional doctrinal truths must be humble enough to admit.

Maintaining the faith as in belief in absolute truth and the One true God. Absolutely. Faith as in tradition, maybe.

Is the reason d'etre the destination or the journey.

reason is the guide for the journey but is not the destination. We use reason in order to understand, and in understanding, believe.

Spreading the good news with conversation or "encouraging conversion?"

why not both?

6:18 PM  

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