But in very different ways.
Kevin DeYoung and I are generally cut from the same theological fabric. But quite honestly, I’ve never gotten all the way through any of his books. I’ve started reading every book he’s written and I haven’t finished a single one. The main reason is that I take very seriously what one of my seminary professors, Kevin Vanhoozer taught me: Christians must always be charitable toward each other’s work before we’re critical of it. This is very important to me and it is the reason that while I don’t find much I disagree with in DeYoung’s books, I’ll probably never purchase another one. He is rarely charitable in a way that his ‘target’ would recognize as charitable. His charity, when it appears, seems more a concession than generous kindness.
Shaine Claiborne and I are generally cut from different theological fabric. There’s plenty to pick at in his books (although I’ve deeply enjoyed the two I’ve read), and I’d be somewhat nervous to have him preach at my church. But I gotta be honest with you: This is a guy I’d love to hang with. And because he’s generally charitable and considerate to everyone he writes about (except, perhaps, George Bush), I have a lot of patience with him.
Recently, Claiborne authored a “letter to unbelievers” for Esquire magazine, which was responded to by Kevin DeYoung (Sort of. DeYoung was obviously writing about Claiborne even though he never mentioned his name), which response Justin Taylor called “outstanding.” A good friend of mine suggested that I comment on the bruhaha, and I thought it might indeed be an interesting place to jump back into blogging.
DeYoung’s beef with Claiborne’s letter is that it preaches what DeYoung calls “The New Gospel.” He explains that this increasingly popular “new gospel” usually has four parts: (A) it starts with an apology; (B) it appeals to God as love; (C) it invites others to join God on his mission; (D) it is ambivalent about eternity. He then explains that it’s a popular way to talk because (1) it’s partially true; (2) it deals with strawmen; (3) it leads people to believe wrong things without explicitly stating those wrong things; (4) it’s manageable; (5) it’s inspirational; (6) it’s non-offensive.
Here’s my response to DeYoung’s points (along the way I’ll be addressing much of Claiborne’s letter as well):
(A) I don’t understand what’s wrong with apologizing when you (or many of your allies) have really done wrong. Claiborne writes, “To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity. Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.” Here’s the thing: Claiborne is right. Now, if it was Francis Chan saying this, I doubt DeYoung would have picked on this part. But it’s not Chan (who is into reformed theology), it’s Claiborne. DeYoung is right to say that an apology to unbelievers isn’t the gospel, but here’s my problem with him saying that: Claiborne never said it was the gospel! This is exactly what drives me nuts about the way DeYoung often (mis)characterizes his opponents. Claiborne talks about the gospel after this apology in his letter. It’s certainly in bad taste to create straw men when you’re accusing others of creating straw men.
(B) God is love. Right (1 John 4:8)? I’m assuming DeYoung isn’t criticizing this part of the “New Gospel,” just trying to describe it. Claiborne isn’t saying that love is God. He’s saying that God is love.
(C) Here, I’m not sure whether DeYoung is being critical or just describing. His characterization of Claiborne’s call to God’s mission is beautiful, and for the life of me I can’t tell if he’s being slightly sarcastic or not: “God’s kingdom is being established on earth. On earth! Not in some distant heaven after we die, but right here, right now. Even though we all mess up, we are God’s agents to show his love and bring this kingdom. And we don’t do that by scaring people with religious language or by forcing them into some religious mold. We do it by love. That’s the way of Jesus. That’s what it means to follow him. We love our neighbor and work for peace and justice. God wants us to become the good news for a troubled planet.” Do I agree with all of that? Yes I do. Do I think that’s the whole story? Of course I don’t. My question is whether DeYoung agrees with all of the above. If he doesn’t, he should, because it is the (biblical) story of the unfolding, expanding, progressing Kingdom of God on Earth.
(D) Valid point. Claiborne, McLaren, Pagitt, Jones… it is difficult to get their take on the eternal destiny of those who do not embrace by faith Christ and his atoning work. But, again, I think it’s uncharitable to use the word “ambivalent.” I don’t think most of these guys are ambivalent (i.e. “having contradictory feelings or opinions”). That makes it sound like they haven’t thought it through. I think these guys are actually unforthcoming. It’s not that the do not know what they think about it. It’s that they refuse to give a straight answer about it.
(1) What DeYoung calls the “New Gospel” is partially true. And, I would add, it includes important elements that are almost always missing from what DeYoung calls the “Old Gospel.” Namely, that God has a project: the restoration of his creation, and that he is building a Kingdom that will be consummated when Jesus returns to establish his throne on earth. You getting saved is a part of that project, but it is not the whole project! Jesus rarely talked about the gospel in terms of his death in our place for our sins. He almost always talked about it in terms of the mustard seed-like Kingdom progressing in the world. Both are part of the gospel! The “New Gospel” doesn’t talk enough about the former, I grant you. But the “Old Gospel” almost completely ignores the latter.
(2) Strawmen. Well, we’ve touched on this. I do think that apocalyptic street preachers, Crusaders, and those who caricature the evangelical view of salvation often do more harm than good. But I’m not sure this is a fair criticism coming from DeYoung, who has shown himself to be proficient at building strawmen.
(3) Very valid point. Emergents are famously and deservingly known for this. They tend to question the prevailing view by using leading, open-ended questions without actually ever answering their own questions. They love to use vague phrases like, “Well, but does God really…?” “Is our God truly a God who would…?” “I doubt that the God of love would really say…” “Can we really conceive of a loving God who would…?” It’s dishonest and misleading, and DeYoung is right. To be fair, however, I rarely see Claiborne do this.
(4) and (6) are really the same point. DeYoung is saying that there is nothing difficult or offensive about the “New Gospel.” He’s mostly right. It generally majors on hope and a longing for something better. It definitely casts an optimistic vision for humanity. It downplays sin (unless it’s corporate, consumeristic sin) and the atonement. Fair points. But it is absolutely uncharitable to say that Claiborne’s gospel “meets people where they are and leaves them there.” Everything I’ve ever read from Claiborne screams for radical transformation and self-sacrificial imitation of Christ. I don’t think I’ve ever read something in a DeYoung book (though, admittedly, I’ve never finished one) that makes me want to take up my cross and follow Christ in a way I never have before. But I’m challenged to do this every time I read Claiborne, and in a way scarcely rivaled by any other author (only Francis Chan and John Piper come to mind).
(5) It’s inspirational. Yeah. It is. You would hope the gospel would be.