McLaren’s ‘New Christianity’ and its Greco-Roman Narrative

I haven’t yet read McLaren’s latest, mostly because of financial restrictions.  But I’ve been keeping one eye on the critiques, if only to see where the perceived weaknesses are if I ever make it around to it.

And  Fuller New Testament Professor Marianne Meye Thompson’s take is the one that has sparked the most interest for me, if only because it addresses what seems to be a central feature of McLaren’s vision of Christianity:  critiquing the “Hellenizing influences” on the Christian faith.

This critique is made frequently enough.  You can find it in N.T. Wright, in feminist literature, and in various strands of postmodern theology more hostile to traditional evangelicalism.  But Thompson contends that with respect to McLaren’s version of “Greco-Roman thought,” the distinction between Greco-Roman thought and Jewish thought is not as simple as is often thought:

Let me give one example of how historical evidence challenges McLaren’s take on the Greco-Roman narrative and then an example of how McLaren’s own reading is as much shaped by prior ideological commitments. McLaren is right that the word “the Fall” doesn’t appear in the Bible. And it doesn’t appear in Jewish literature either. But something very much like the idea of the moral corruption of the world due to human disobedience – hardly the product of the Greek philosophical tradition– is there. One finds it coursing throughout Jewish literature dating to the period prior to and contemporaneous with the NT. It can perhaps be pithily summarized in the heartfelt cry found in certain Jewish texts lamenting the state of humankind: “Oh Adam, what have you done?” (4 Ezra 7.118) and “O Adam, what did you do to all who were born after you?” (2 Bar 48:12; cf 54:19).

This is not exactly a doctrine of “original sin,” but it is a view that Adam’s transgression infected the world with sin and death. This same literature views the world as given over to moral corruption, that is manifested in murder, violence, cannibalism, and sexual immorality, among other sins. And there is fairly widely shared belief in the dual destiny of humankind in salvation to eternal life and punishment for sin (sometimes as construed as divine destruction and death, sometimes as eternal torment).*

What McLaren terms the “Greco-Roman narrative” sounds very much like the narratives found in Jewish literature of this period. Not surprisingly, the convictions found in that literature occur also in the pages of the NT: the corruption of the world (Romans 1-2) and the sin and death brought about by Adam (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:21-24); and the depiction of two fates of humankind (Mark 9:43-38; Luke 16:19-31; Matthew 25:31-46; John 3:17-18, 5:24-29; Romans 2:7-10, 8:1-13; Revelation 21:6-8).

Again, I haven’t read McLaren, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the critique.  But as a general principle, Thompson highlights why I am wary of dismissive readings of early Christianity for being too “Hellenized.”

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  • http://notesfromasmallplace.wordpress.com Jake Meador

    Matt – Having read it, that’s a fair (and very helpful) critique.

  • David Morris

    Are you saying that McLaren is playing the theological syncretism card?

    • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      David, that was my favorite comment I’ve seen in a while. It cracked me up.

  • -kp-

    Thompson’s right: she’s standing on the shoulders of Hengel.