Claiborne vs. DeYoung on the Gospel

shaneclaiborne3.jpgShaine Claiborne and Kevin DeYoung are very frustrating to me.

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.

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13 thoughts on “Claiborne vs. DeYoung on the Gospel”

  1. Amen!

    I wholly agree to this.

    Having read a good amount from both authors I found this quite intriguing and reinforcing.

    Keep up the good posts PB!

    -Ben.

  2. Keep writing, Mookie. I enjoy your commentary – especially as it explores the spectrum of the Christian voice in this world. I just realized that I said Mookie. I suppose most called you something like Pastor McWhite now.

  3. Sweet! I knew I’d get you to take the bait. 🙂

    Good thoughts. I’ll read this more closely later… one question though… in your opinion, what is the point of the abundant life in the Kingdom now? Based on the fact that this life is passing away (both for each of us personally and for all of creation eventually), it’s a smidgeon of a fraction of time compared to eternity, and the general focus of the New Testament looking forward to Christ’s return, it seems that taking part in God’s Kingdom in this life is primarily meant to help prepare oneself and the Bride for the life to come. God is in the process of putting Jesus’ enemies under His feet and calling a people to Him. Both of these are done primarily not with the present age in mind but the age to come. So if you want to take part in that eternal age, better start getting it in gear in this temporal one. The point of loving people now is that you’ll help win some to eternal life, thus growing God’s Kingdom. If the current life is the main focus, then those who die early in their Christian walks really miss out on it (like the thief on the Cross).

    This distinction is what the New Gospel preachers seem to miss. They focus on the here and now as if it is nearly all there is, or as if it is the focal point of God’s redemptive work. They neglect the already, (very much) not yet aspect of God’s plan. In a way, they make the same mistake (albeit from a different direction) that the Prosperity Gospel people make, focusing too much on this life. Claiborne may be making the poor more comfortable in this life, but he’s preparing them a bed of eternal discomfort when he denies (at least through implication) the existence of Hell and focuses on corporate sins of “those other people”.

  4. Amy,

    No one calls me Pastor McWhite. There are a few that go with Pastor Bryan. Almost everyone goes with “PB.” But Gustavus and YouthWorks! folks are always welcome to “Mookie!”

  5. Okay, after doing a little digesting, here are my couple thoughts.

    First, regarding the apologizing, I guess what I’m concerned with is WHAT Claiborne (or the New Gospel preachers) are apologizing for. Are they apologizing for things like Focus on the Family’s standforchristmas.com? Then sure, they have a point, that is stupid and probably hurts the spread of the gospel. Are they apologizing for the Crusades? Okay, they might have a point, but it’s a few centuries too late and does anyone honestly believe that there is a lost person out there just holding a grudge against Christianity for something that happened a half millenia ago to a bunch of Muslims bent on conquering the world? It’s even more stupid than me apologizing to some black man on the street for slavery. He was never enslaved (in fact, his ancestors are from India, so neither were they), I have never owned a slave (and my ancestors were being persecuted in Russia about the time that slavery was coming to an end), so why the apology? Claiborne does give us a hint as to at least one thing he’s apologizing for, and it doesn’t speak well for him or for this New Gospel. As an example of what he’s sorry that Christians do, he relates the story of the preacher with a bullhorn. Like Rob Bell, he apparently thinks that God either doesn’t send people to Hell or that Christians should keep that a secret and just talk about the good things God has to offer. Either way, it doesn’t take long to find that Jesus WAS that preacher with a bullhorn. Jesus’s message, we are told repeatedly, was “repent and believe or perish.” Granted, it’s evident from Scripture that He also said a lot of other things, but at the heart of it was “repent or die.”

    Which brings me to my other thought, regarding whether or not Claiborne’s New Gospel leaves people where they are at or not. Works-wise, Claiborne definitely does NOT leave his listeners and readers in comfort, he demands self-sacrifice. Just like any legalistic, self-wrought gospel does. Judaism at the time of Jesus demanded a lot. The New Gospel demands a lot, but not really anything spiritually redeeming. The Gospel says repent, die in Christ, and be born again to live in Him. The New Gospel says come and be a better person, love Jesus, DO lots of stuff (particularly stuff that postmodern liberal guilt leads you to do), but doesn’t mention repentance once. Claiborne says we’re just ignorant of Jesus and the better life to be had. Jesus says we are enemies of Him and must lay down our arms, stop trying to be good, and die.

    So, for those of us who have repented and died and been born again, Claiborne offers some great (and some not-so-great-bordering-on-insanely-stupid) advice for how to truly live out Christ’s love to the world. And since we have the Spirit in us, we hear Claiborne’s exhortations with a right ear. But the lost, those who have not come to Christ, hear Claiborne saying a very different thing, and the Gospel is nowhere to be found. This is the danger in the New Gospel… Christians hear it from a healthy perspective while unbelievers hear it from a dangerous context.


  6. “Christians must always be charitable toward each other’s work before we’re critical of it.”

    are you being as gracious to DeYoung as you demand he be to Claiborne, et al? isn’t this post essentially the same sort of critique as DeYoung had of the Esquire article?

  7. Gene,

    I thought someone might ask that. It’s a good point and well received. My tone was certainly sharp, I agree. That said, I think charitableness in assessing someone else’s work begins with accurately representing it (especially when you disagree with it), which I believe I have done and DeYoung rarely does.

  8. I am a fan of Claiborne, and others with his fresh kind of perspective. Little to dispute with his “Jesus Way” theology as viewed through my little knothole. I might recommend for your reading list, any of the writings of George MacDonald (C.S. Lewis’s stated mentor). Amazing and relevant. As a point of reference, I am an older believer who has lived (or survived!) many of the “Christian” generational movements, and find that with the advent of the Internet, the plethora of past, present and perhaps, future thought is now available to the masses, which is upending the status quo…how invigorating, exciting and ultimately, revolutionary…about freakin’ time, huh??

  9. As a friend of Shaine Claiborne and as a friend and attender of Kevin DeYoung’s church, I found this article very interesting. I agree with much of B.C. had to say in his analysis. I wholeheartedly agree with his; “Christians must always be charitable toward each other’s work before we’re critical of it.” In fact this is what lead me to read this article… and has been something I admire Shaine for… and struggled with Kevin about. As I see these two different men of God (and that is what they both are) I realize there is something that strangely divides them…. they live and work in two completely different worlds (I have been to both their homes). While Kevin is in a largely academic world with most of his congregation being super educated and working in academia (MSU is across the street from his church) Shaine lives and works in the hood with “nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing” folks. I think if we are to consider what they are saying, how they view the gospel and complexities of the christian life within their contexts we would better understand what and why they are saying what they are. Though much of what they debate about is void of contemporary context I feel much of it is not. I know this conversation could go on forever but I thought I should add my two sense worth.

    p.s. Also to Darius T. I am not even sure how to address your comments e.g. “does anyone honestly believe that there is a lost person out there just holding a grudge against Christianity for something that happened a half millenia ago to a bunch of Muslims…” Man, really??? You need to learn a little more about ministry to muslims before commenting so rashly on this. This is one of the major obstacles for Muslims to even hearing the gospel!

  10. Allan,

    First of all, I don’t believe that the typical apology for the Crusades in the New Gospel is usually directed at Muslims but white, educated nonbelievers who have been told their entire life that the Crusades were some terrible evil visited by the bad Christian white man on a bunch of innocent Middle Eastern Muslims. But whomever the audience is, we are to first tell the truth, which when it comes to the Crusades is a LOT more complex than what Western society teaches.

    And it’s pretty safe to say that most Muslims in the third world don’t care at all about the Crusades cause they have never even heard of them. The only Muslims using that as a crutch are those living in the West who have been indoctrinated with the public school meme.

    As for Shane (not Shaine) Claiborne… I would be his biggest fan (seriously) if he would just do two things: clearly state the Gospel and stop supporting those who deny the Gospel. I have read his books and listened to some of his talks, and have yet to hear anything close to THE Gospel once delivered. He talks a lot about the benefits of the Gospel, but dances around the subject of repentance and spiritual salvation. His other main weakness is he writes back cover blurbs for all the wrong books, which indicates he’s either not discerning with his praise or has some serious issues with his doctrine.

  11. “And it’s pretty safe to say that most Muslims in the third world don’t care at all about the Crusades cause they have never even heard of them. The only Muslims using that as a crutch are those living in the West who have been indoctrinated with the public school meme.”

    Again brother, you need to be a little more aware of the Muslim world. I am from the “third world”, born and raised and work there as a minister of the beautiful Gospel of Jesus Christ. Your presumptions of what people in the third world don’t know is pretty telling of your ignorance. I have Muslim family who are still very upset about the Crusades. The Crusades are, to this day, taught as historical fuel for anti-western, anti-Christian thought throughout the Muslim world. You should get to know the facts rather than base your argument on assumptions. Your opinions are uninformed. Can you hear yourself? You are the person you dislike so much.

    p.s. “Shane (not Shaine)” … Really?

  12. Oh boy. The issue is not about the truth of the Crusades. I don’t think you get it. The issue i have is with your free wheeling opinions about what others think or don’t think. You speak to freely of things you don’t understand.

    I am sure you are a fine young man and I pray you grow in the Grace of our Lord. Take care.

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