Brian McLaren Quotes, 'Ignorance is bliss' to 'Theology'

by Matt Slick
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brian mclaren

Here are more quotes from Brian McLaren.  Again we ask if he is a false teacher.

The following are quotes from McLaren extracted from different sources.  I've added small comments in green.

  1. Ignorance is bliss
    1. Understanding nothing is good: "My favorite musician for many years has been Bruce Cockburn, and as I said in an earlier footnote, I think my favorite line from all his songs is found in "understanding nothing": All these years of thinking, he sings, ended up like this - in front of all this beauty, understanding nothing."1
      1. Given that McLaren considers orthodoxy in a negative light, I'm not surprised that he likes the musical ignorance of Cockburn.
    2. Christian orthodoxy is not claiming to know the truth: "To be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuff, and mounted on the wall...That, to me, is orthodoxy - a way of seeing and seeking, a way of living, a way of thinking and loving and learning that helps what we believe become more true over time, more resonant with the infinite glory that is God."2
      1. Of course, claiming that orthodoxy is not knowing the truth, is a self refuting statement because it means you have to know the truth about not knowing the truth.  Anyway, there are absolute truths revealed in the word of God.  We know that God exists, that people are sinners, but there's consequences to sin, that Jesus came and died on the cross for our sins, etc.  That is orthodoxy and it is knowable.  McLaren is wrong.
    3. "The achievement of 'right thinking' therefore recedes, happily, further beyond our grasp the more we pursue it.  As it eludes us, we are strangely rewarded: we feel gratitude and love, humility and wonder, reverence and awe, adventure and homecoming.  We shout hallelujah, and weep tears of joy."3
      1. God calls us to right-thinking in spiritual matters.  Right-thinking does not elude us when we center it on Christ.  It is not the abandoning of absolutes and brings humility, but knowing the absolute transcendence and majesty of God and brings true humility.  Nevertheless, here are a couple of verses about right thinking as taught in Scripture.  Phil. 2:3, says, "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself."  Phil. 4:8 says, "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things."
  2. Jesus
    1. Jesus came to shine a light on bad things: "Jesus comes then not to condemn (to bring the consequences we deserve) but to save by shining the light on our evil, by naming our evil as evil so we can repent and escape a chain of bad actions and bad consequences to forgiveness, and so we can learn from Jesus the master teacher to live more wisely in the future." 4
      1. Jesus did not come to the earth to save people by shining light on their evil.  He came to save by dying in in their place on the cross by bearing their sins in his body on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24) and by becoming sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21).  It is called vicarious, substitutionary atonement.
  3. Miscellaneous
    1. Ghandi followed the way of Christ: "We see great leaders-- such as St. Francis, Gandhi (who sought to follow the way of Christ without identifying himself as a Christian), and Martin Luther King, Jr.-- who's reading and application of the Bible advanced the narrative trajectory..."5
      1. How does anyone (Ghandi, a Hindu) follow the way of Christ apart from Christ since Christ said to follow him? "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men," (Matt. 4:19).  "And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me," (Matt. 10:38); "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me," (John 10:27).
    2. Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish disciples don't have to adhere to Christianity: "Then I must add, though, that I don't believe making disciples must equal making adherence to the Christian religion.  It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts.  This will be hard, you say, and I agree.  But frankly, it's not at all easy to be a follower of Jesus in many "Christian" religious context, either."6  
      1. When you have a lax and inaccurate view of Christianity, you mistakingly we conclude that those in anti-Christian religious systems can remain in those systems while following Jesus.  Not true.  Jesus requires that we abandon everything and follow him.  Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism are incomplete and insufficient.  They need to be abandoned when coming to Christ.  "When he puts forth all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 And a stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers," (John 10:4-5).
  4. Mysticism
    1. Mystical approach to the Bible: "This mystical/poetic approach takes special pains to remember that the Bible itself contains precious little expository prose."7
      1. Such statements make me wonder if Brian McLaren has read the books of Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude.  There is  plenty of  non poetic, non-metrical, non versed, prose contained within them.
    2. Learn meditative practices from Buddhism: “Western Christianity has (for the last few centuries anyway) said relatively little about mindfulness and meditative practices, about which Zen Buddhism has said much. To talk about different things is not to contradict one another; it is, rather, to have much to offer one another, on occasion at least.”8
      1. How can McLaren dare to suggest that Christians be enlightened by an antichrist religion such as Buddhism?  Is McLaren serious?  What else in Zen Buddhism does he approve of?  Aren't the Scriptures sufficient in themselves to give us all that we need to find God and grow in our experience with them or more must return to false religious systems for help?
  5. Salvation
    1. Inaccurate understanding of Salvation: "For too many people the name Jesus has become a symbol of exclusion, as if Jesus' statement 'I am the way, and of the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me' actually means, 'I am in the way of people seeking truth and life.  I won't let anyone get to God unless he comes through me.'"9
      1. McLaren apparently doesn't understand the Romans 3:10-12 which says, "There is none righteous, not even one; 11 There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; 12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.”  The only people who seek truth and life are those who have been drawn by the Father to do so, "No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him," (John 6:44).  So, McLaren is wrong when he comments about people seeking truth and life.  Nevertheless, more surprising as his statement that seems to deny that anyone can get to God unless it is through Jesus.  Like it or not, this is what Jesus said and McLaren should accept Christ's words for what they say instead of contradicting them.
    2. Being saved means not saved from hell: "In the Bible, save means ‘rescue’ or ‘heal’. It emphatically does not mean ‘save from hell’ or ‘give eternal life after death,’ as many preachers seem to imply in sermon after sermon. Rather its meaning varies from passage to passage, but in general, in any context, save means ‘get out of trouble.’ The trouble could be sickness, war, political intrigue, oppression, poverty, imprisonment, or any kind of danger or evil."10
      1. McLaren is profoundly in error here.  In regard to the work of Christ on the cross, salvation means to be saved from the righteous judgment of a holy God whereby the sinner, the lawbreaker, is condemned eternal damnation.  We call this eternal damnation, hell.  We are actually "saved" from God's righteous judgment.  McLaren is simply wrong.
    3. Salvation is by exposing wrong: "By judging our evil, by naming it for what it is, by penetrating our denial and self-delusion, God begins saving us.... As we repent, as we become truly sorry, as we have a change of heart, God goes further by forgiving us, thus bringing salvation in an even fuller sense.  Salvation is what happens when we experience both judgment and forgiveness, both justice (exposing the truth about our wrong) and mercy (forgoing to negative consequences we deserve).  Without both we don't end up with true salvation...the good news of salvation is that God sent Jesus not to condemn but to save: to save by bringing justice with mercy, true judgment with true forgiveness.  First by exposing are wrong (judging) so we can face are wrong and turn from it... and then by forgiving our wrong, God intervenes and breaks a chain of cause and effect, of offense and alienation, so we're are truly saved - liberated, rescued - from the vicious cycle (a.k.a., mess.) we created."11
      1. In reading the chapter "Jesus: Savior of what?", I found a lot of talk about Jesus as Savior, about exposing the truth of our wrong, about our suffering negative consequences, that God saves by teaching or revealing, about Jesus judging, forgiving, absorbing the worst of human "religiosity, petty political systems, individual betrayal, physical torture, the cross, etc.  What I did not see was the teaching that Jesus took our place on the cross, bore our sins in his body and paid the penalty, the wrath of God that was due us, but was poured out upon Christ instead.  I do not know if McLaren affirms the vicarious atonement of Christ, but it appears he does not.  I may be wrong, but I get the impression he is teaching what is called the "moral influence" theory of the atonement. This is the erring position that Christ's example of obedience to the Father by going to the cross is an object lesson in submission and humility of which the followers of Christ are supposed to emulate because that is the value of the cross.  This position was advocated by Peter Abelard.  It is wrong.
        The moral influence theory of the atonement does not address the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ nor its substitutionary nature.  Propitiation is the sacrifice that turns away wrath.  Jesus was our propitiation (1 John 2:2).  Jesus bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24) and took our place on the cross suffering the wrath that was our due (Isa. 53:4-6).  The atoning work is not merely an example of love and sacrifice, though it certainly includes that.  The atoning work of Christ is a legal sacrifice that pays the penalty due to sinners who break Gods' law whereby we are saved from eternal damnation.
        McLaren offers us a watered-down sacrifice that is aimed at motivating human effort and identification with Christ in such a way that makes it possible for others, outside the Christian faith to find salvation by emulating Christ's sacrifice, humility, and example in their lives without the requisite trust in the person of Christ as savior.  This is moralism.  It is salvation by works, not salvation by faith (Rom. 5:1) and it is heretical.
    4. McLaren is not a Christian because Jesus is his savior: "Again, although I believe in Jesus as my personal savior, I am not a Christian for that reason.  I am a Christian because I believe that Jesus is the Savior of the whole world."12
      1. Technically speaking, a person is a Christian precisely because he's trusting in Christ as his Savior.  Whether or not he believes Jesus is the Savior of the whole world (non Christians included?) or not, is irrelevant to Christ being his Savior.
  6. Sin
    1. Sin is dis-integration: "Sin, in this model, can be understood as lower levels or rings resisting the emergence of higher levels or rings, body-lusts refusing to be integrated with mental ideals in an ethical soul; individual wills (a mental faculty) refusing to develop the virtues of soul necessary so that healthy families and communities and cultures can emerge; individual kingdoms (which we could call me-isms) or national or religious or ethnic kingdoms (which we could call we-isms) refusing to yield territory to the emergence of the larger (and largest) reality--God's kingdom (which we could call good theism)."13
      1. McLaren had developed a diagram with three circles, one within another with body, mind, and soul within those three circles.  He had just commented on the same page about how the diagram "frustrates us because we are more used to thinking of ourselves in the Neoplatonic and Cartesian ghost-in-a-machine model, where the body is the bigger machine and the soul is a little disassociated tenant, fluttering around in a machine like a tiny moth in a tin can."  Such imaginative and subjective imagery really doesn't say much.   Nevertheless, the diagram doesn't frustrate me for the reason he stated.  It frustrates me because it's unbiblical.  The Bible tells us that "sin is lawlessness," (1 John 3:4), not disintegration.
  7. Theology
    1. Systematic theology is arrogant intellectualizing: "This rebuke to the arrogant intellectualizing is especially apt for modern Christians, who do not build cathedrals of stone and glass as in the Middle Ages, but rather conceptual cathedrals of proposition and argument.  These conceptual cathedrals - known popularly as systematic theologies - were cherished by modern minds, liberal and conservative..."14
      1. It appears that McLaren does not appreciate the truths that the historical Christian church has discovered in its long examination of Scripture in response to a host of false teachings.  The church has formulated the doctrine of the Trinity, the incarnation, justification by grace through faith, etc., and is thus able to recognize what is true and false.  McLaren does not state any specifics about what he calls "arrogant intellectualizing".  Instead, he seems to lump all the Christian theology into one smelly pile to be looked upon with disdain.  The result of his prose is a careless and inaccurate summation of Christian theology.
    2. Systematic theology is criticized: "We see modernity with its absolutism's and colonialism's and totalitarianism as a kind of static dream, a desire to abide in timeless abstractions and extract humanity from the ongoing flow of history and emergence, a naïve hope to make now the end of history (which actually sounds either like a kind of death wish or millennialism).  In Christian theology, this anti-emergent thinking is expressed in systematic theologies that claim (overtly, covertly, or unconsciously) to have final orthodoxy nailed down, freeze-dried, and shrink-wrapped forever."15
      1. McLaren seems to have an absolute view about modernity.  It's a good thing we have absolutes for without them, we can't know what the truth really is.  I'm also dismayed at how he decries systematic theology and orthodoxy as bad things.  If there were no absolutes in biblical theology, we wouldn't know if Mormonism of the Jehovah's Witnesses were Christians or not, would we?  Likewise, we wouldn't be able to tell if Islam was true or false or if atheism was viable?
    3. Insufficiency of words to describe God: "Prose and abstractions just don't contain or convey God's truth as well as we thought they did.  This is obviously true of our 'theological' jargon--words like omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, immutable, impassable, and so on."16
      1. It is true that all of our descriptions of God will ultimately fall short because they cannot adequately convey the character and attributes of an infinite God.  But this does not mean that the words we have used to describe him are to be discarded.  It is our nature, our God given nature, to examine and to learn.  Since God himself has spoken about himself in human words and human descriptions about his own attributes, then it is permissible for us to do the same and to believe those descriptions as far as they accurately reflect revelation from the Bible.
        Furthermore, one of the reasons God has given us descriptions about himself is so that we might recognize false teachings.  If McLaren is suggesting that we abandon the absolutes of language and truth propositions for a "feel-good" and "ambiguous" definition of God, then perhaps he might also want to abandoned the absolutes of truth as revealed in Scripture and eagerly await the arrival of the Antichrist who will teach a theology that will unite most of the world.
    4. Orthodoxy is criticized: "A generous orthodoxy, in contrast to the tense, narrow, controlling, or critical orthodoxies of so much Christian history, doesn't take itself too seriously.  It is humble; it doesn't claim to much; it admits it walks with a limp."17
      1. And exactly which narrow, controlling, and critical orthodoxies is he speaking about?  Is it the doctrine that Jesus is the only way to the father (John 14:6), or that there is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved (Acts 4:12), or that Jesus laid his life down for our salvation (John 3:16)?  Which of these doctrines anchored in critical orthodoxies is to be rejected as narrow and controlling?

My conclusion is that McLaren has no business teaching Christian theology.  It is a sad thing that his books are as popular as they are among Christians.  It is not surprising that in a world of relativism and feel-good theology, his writings flourish.  But, hopefully, they all along with other unbiblical teachings will face their demise when Jesus Christ returns as the righteous and absolute king who will separate the sheep from the goats.




  • 1. McLaren, Brian, A Generous Orthodoxy, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004, p. 291.
  • 2. Ibid., p. 293.
  • 3. Ibid., p. 296.
  • 4. Ibid., p. 96.
  • 5. Ibid., p. 170.
  • 6. Ibid., p. 260.
  • 7. Ibid., p. 155.
  • 8. Ibid., p. 255.
  • 9. Ibid., p. 70.
  • 10. Ibid., p. 93.
  • 11. Ibid., p. 95-96.
  • 12. Ibid., p. 100, italics in original.
  • 13. Ibid., p. 281-82.
  • 14. Ibid., p. 151.
  • 15. Ibid., p. 286.
  • 16. Ibid., p. 152.
  • 17. Ibid., p. 155.

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.