A Response to David Hesselgrave





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A Response to David Hesselgrave’s “Brian McLaren’s Contextualization of the Gospel” Evangelical Mission Quarterly, January 2007

Dr Alex Tang

Professor David J. Hesselgrave, professor emeritus of mission at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School published a critique on Brian McLaren’s contextualization of the gospel. It is commendable that someone of Professor’s Hesselgrave stature should examine McLaren’s contextualization theory.

First, Hesselgrave started his introduction by comparing McLaren to his former undergraduate adviser, Dr. Paul Holmer. Both are prone to making provocative and confusing statements. Hesselgrave went on to quote McLaren as going out of his way “to be provocative, mischievous and unclear.” This would have made Hesselgrave’s task very difficult because he has to shift through McLaren’s statements to differentiate that which is intentionally provocative and intentionally unclear. Hence Hesselgave cannot take every statement of McLaren to mean exactly what McLaren believes. It is hoped that Hesselgrave, as a good scholar, would have consulted McLaren as to the “correctness” of Hesselgrave’s interpretation of his statement.

Second, Hesselgrave based his paper on two of McLaren’s books; A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on Spiritual Journey (2001) and A Generous Orthodoxy (2004) and on Edwin Frizen, Jr’s 75 Years of IFMA 1917-1972 (1992). Frizen’s book gave a historical account of IFMA (Interdenominational Foreign Missions Association)’s history and can be considered to contain “a full fledged statement of faith (SOF)” of the IFMA (94). McLaren’s books can not be considered by any stretch of imagination to be SOF documents. A New Kind of Christian is written as an imaginative novel, which McLaren has stated elsewhere is not autobiographical. A Generous Orthodoxy is a book of personal reflection and is also not a SOF. Therefore it will not be correct to compare and contrast the three books and critique them academically. A critique of contextualization should have included all of McLaren’s publications.

McLaren never claimed to represent the emerging church movement so it cannot be said, as it is often in the paper that what he believes represented the emerging church movement. The emerging church movement is a loose collection of people with diverse practices and beliefs.

Third, Hesselgrave has chosen to examine McLaren’s contextualisation of the gospel in four areas, (1) mission, (2) believing, (3) belonging, and (4) becoming.

(1) ‘McLaren’s New “Missional Mission”’ Hesselgrave writes, “McLaren says that “missional” means that the Church should first reflect on its mission in the world and then allow its theology to flow out of that reflection rather than first reflecting on theology and allowing its understanding of mission to flow out of theology (2004, 105-106).” My own copy of McLaren’s book must be different because its pagination is different. However on page 115 of my copy (2004), McLaren writes that it was David Bosch, Lesslie Newbigin and Vincent Donovan who wrote “rather than seeing missiology as a study within theology, theology is actually a discipline within Christian mission. Theology is the church on a mission reflecting on its message, its identity, its meaning.” Practical theology is not new nor is limited to McLaren. Others are studying its applications (Schleiermacher 1966; Browning 1991; Heitink 1999).

As a follow-on thought on McLaren’s missional mission statement that all are called to be “followers of Jesus,” Hesselgrave quotes McLaren, “Buddhists who “feel so called will become Buddhist followers of Jesus” and they should be given by that opportunity and invitation” (2004, 264). However, in his book, McLaren is writing about incarnational living which may involve influencing them to be followers of Jesus. McLaren is not talking about conversion but incarnational evangelism (McLaren 1999, 150-157). In the analysis for this section, I agree with Hesselgrave that his disagreement with McLaren’s mission and missiology “is not just hermeneutical; it is epistemological.”(95).

(2) ‘New Ways of Believing Scripture’ Here, the focus was on the way McLaren reads Scripture. A good example to use is to describe the way McLaren reads Scripture is the comparison in the Old Testament in reading the ‘letter’ and the ‘spirit’ of the Law. The difference is in the way which Hesselgrave and McLaren view revelation from the Bible. Hesselgrave believes, “revelation occurred when the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible authors to write scripture, not when the Holy Spirit enables readers to discover its truth at some deeper or highest level.” (97). McLaren believes that the Holy Spirit nowadays can lead readers of the Bible into greater spiritual truth and understanding. Again the difference between the two is hermeneutical and epistemological.

(3) ‘New Ways of Belonging: The Church’ In his concept of church as a community, McLaren welcomes everybody. Hesselgrave argues that Church is for believers only. Again there is a difference in definition. McLaren takes church (with a small ‘c’) to refer to a community of believers, seekers and others. McLaren writes that he is not a Universalist.

(4) ‘New Way of Becoming: Becoming a Christian.’ Hesselgrave mentions that “McLaren prefers to think and speak in terms of conversations rather than conversions.”(99). This may be a misinterpretation of McLaren. McLaren normally uses the term conversation to denote dialogue rather than conversion or evangelism. He also questioned the ‘simple step of conversion by praying the sinner’s prayer’ and suggests a longer period of conversion and sanctification. Hesselgrave continues, “And, according to him, becoming good is more a process than a point: more a matter of following than a gradual transformation than radical turning (2001, chaps.8-9; 204, 254). Therefore I believe Hesselgrave is right in pointing out that McLaren has much in common with Horace Bushnell “who also criticized evangelical individualism, revivalism, and conversionism.”

Finally, Hesselgrave may be mistaken to consider McLaren and other members of the emerging church movement as “following the lead of twentieth century liberals when they insists on accommodating postmodernism by resisting biblical authority and replacing the biblical gospel with another gospel of whatever derivation.”(100). The battles with the liberals were over long ago. This paper reveals a lot about the different hermeneutical methodologies and epistemological grounds of these two men[1]. It also shows their modern and postmodern worldviews respectively (Erickson 2002, 59-86).

 In a way, it reflects the ongoing conversations or the discussions between those who are positive towards the emerging church movement and those who are against. This reminds us of the conversation about whether Gentile believers must be circumcised or not. Unfortunately we do not have a wise Jerusalem Council to offer us guidance. However, we do echo Gamaliel II, who when asked about the followers of the Way declared, “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39 NIV)



Browning, D. (1991). A Fundamental Practical Theology: Descriptive and Strategic Proposals. Minneapolis, Fortress Press.

Erickson, Millard. J. The Post Modern World: Discerning the Times and the Spirit of our Age. Wheaton, IL, Crossway Books

Heitink, G. (1999). Practical Theology: History, Theory, and Action Domains. Grand Rapids, MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans.

McLaren, B. D. (1999). Finding Faith. Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan.

McLaren, B. D. (2001). A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two friends on a Spiritual Journey. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

McLaren, B. D. (2004). A Generous Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan.

Schleiermacher, F. (1966). Brief Outline on the study of Theology. Richmond, VA, John Know Press.

Tomlinson, D. (2003). The Post-Evangelical (Revised North American Edition). Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan.



 [1] Dave Tomlinson, vicar of St. Luke’s Anglican Church in North London writes, “For evangelicals, truth is rarely seen as problematic. Truth not expressed literally is usually not true at all. Post-evangelicals, on the other hand, feel uneasy with such a cut-and-dried approach and find themselves towards a more relative understanding of truth.” Tomlinson, D. (2003). The Post-Evangelical (Revised North American Edition). Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan. p.93. While Hesselgrave is an evangelical scholar, I believe Brian McLaren will consider himself as post-evangelical.  

|posted 23 February 2007|


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