Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ephrem the Syrian and Heretics: Does it Include McLaren?

Our readings today are Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Luke 4:1-13 and Rom. 10:8b-13. It is the first Sunday of Lent.  My primary reading has been from the Ancient Christian Devotional. Each chapter provides a selection from the church fathers on the passages for that day. This week I was struck by an entry from Ephrem the Syrian on the Luke passage. It reads:
“Satan studied only those passages from Scriptures that were convenient to him and omitted those which were harmful to him. The heretics are like this too. They appropriate from Scripture those passages that suit their erroneous teaching and omit those that refute their errors, thereby demonstrative that they are disciples of their master. Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron 4. 8B-C.”
As I begin to read McLaren’s book, A New Kind of Christianity, I’m amazed by the selectivity he has with Scripture. For example, in a footnote he writes:
“My friend Don Golden, coauthor with Rob Bell of Jesus Wants to Save Christians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), puts it like this, reflecting on the story of Hosea: “When God encounters evil, God doesn’t destroy it—God marries it” (personal conversation). By uniting with a people gone astray—loving, entering, incarnating, and remaining faithful to them in spite of their unfaithfulness—God absorbs their evil in God’s greater good, and evil is thus overcome.” (268 n. 10)
Now I’m sure McLaren would respond that we all play this selective game. And it’s true everyone with a theological position has passages which are difficult to deal with. But this kind of thought which takes one incident from one book of the Bible and baptizes it as the sole manner in which God deals with evil when he encounters evil is problematic. Of course if the reviews I’ve read have been correct I know McLaren sees much of the Old Testament has an improper representation of God so he safely dismisses those passages that would upset the Hosea applecart. But I would be curious to know what we are to make of the bulk of chapter two in Hosea which has some awfully harsh language that doesn’t quite mesh with Golden’s description. Speaking of Israel, God says he will “strip her naked,” “kill her with thirst,” have “no mercy” upon her children who are “children of whoredom,” he will “take back my grain” and he will “take away my wool and my flax which were to cover her nakedness” and “no one shall rescue her out of my hand.” It is true that God also speaks of “alluring her” and he will “speak tenderly to her.” It seems, however, that the quote from Golden only focuses on one aspect of God as presented in Hosea. The harsher language is simply ignored or, presumably, explained away as somehow not truly representing the loving character of God.

So, am I calling Golden and McLaren Satan or heretics because of my use of the quote from Ephrem the Syrian? They certainly are not Satan. Are they heretics? That’s another issue. I don’t think I have a firm enough grasp on what constitutes a heretic before I start throwing that label around. It does seem that Ephrem was not afraid to use it and I don’t think we should be either. We should just be clear about what we mean by it before we use it to label people. Clearly for Ephrem it included the selective and limited use of Scripture for the purpose of formulating teaching which was contrary to Scripture and the teaching of the apostles. That much I do see McLaren doing in just the short amount that I’ve read already.

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