A good portion of Prodigal Christianity is devoted to outlining the ways Neo-Reformed and Emergent theologies fail. The problem, though, is that Fitch and Holsclaw caricature their dialogue partners. That Brian McLaren would find real disagreement with their proposal that participation in the kingdom of God requires theologically-informed discernment seems, at best, unlikely. For that matter, can anyone really imagine that Tony Jones or Doug Pagitt would disagree that “missio Dei . . . points us squarely into the middle of this world where God is, discerning where God is working, knowing that what God has done in the past continues into the present—not as something that we must do but as something God is always already doing” (29–30)? Well, apparently Fitch and Holsclaw do, according to whom Emergents have a Christology that tends to reduce Jesus to a “model” we must follow in order to be faithful, which further leads to a reduction of the Gospel to the work of our hands:
McLaren makes the kingdom of God central to the gospel. He helps us all gain a deeper understanding of what God is doing in Jesus Christ. But there’s a subtle danger here as well: McLaren is prone to reducing the kingdom of God to the practice of following Jesus as our model. Whenever we do this, we open ourselves up to making God’s mission into something we must do. Even if we seek the Spirit to “help” us in the same way Jesus did, the Spirit can become something we do (or access) as well. And so if we’re not careful, building the kingdom of God, bringing peace and renewal, and overcoming sin becomes our task, our job, and our mission. The kingdom is no longer the gospel; it is a new legalism. (87).
In all honesty, I am not certain if McClaren actually thinks this or not. I do, however, know that Fitch and Holsclaw’s work in Prodigal Christianity often has a tendency to reduce the power of the gospel and make the kingdom’s power contingent on the work of our hands. I do not, however, believe this is an intentional move on the part of the authors; at points they are quite explicit that the kingdom’s coming is solely the work of God (e.g., 28–29). Yet they repeatedly use language that undermines this key theological truth. Here are but a few examples, (all emphases added):
“The book challenges us to inhabit the world differently than we do now, build relationships differently, and allow God, through Jesus Christ by the Spirit, to bring the kingdom in over the long term until Christ comes again” (xvi). “Sadly [proclaiming the gospel] becomes more about us and our beliefs (the truth) and less about entering into the other person’s life and allowing God to work” (52). “[C]onversations must touch the ground in concrete actions and decisions if the kingdom of God is to break in” (56–57). In the same way that Jesus’s incarnation both proclaimed and made present the kingdom of God, so too the church proclaims and makes present the in-breaking of his kingdom” (104). “And when we gather to submit these places and problems to his kingdom, then indeed, his kingdom breaks in” (112). “In these ways, we open a clearing for Christ’s power to break in” (120). “When we enter the world to be with people, the kingdom breaks in” (143).
I imagine that Fitch and Holsclaw might object on the basis that I am taking their words out of context (perhaps an objection a few of their interlocutors would wish to have sustained as well). Perhaps they would counter that their language points, not to our own agency, but to our participation in the missio Dei as the extension of the incarnation (chapter 3; a missio-christological-ecclesiological claim that is arguably the theological cornerstone of the book). As they put it, “Followers of Jesus are making the kingdom of God present as a continuation of his life, as an extension of the incarnation” (41). They employ a simple formula: Jesus is the incarnated (enfleshed) presence of the God who is always sending and receiving in mission; the church is the Body of Jesus (those sent in mission in his name); ergo, we are extending the incarnation. There’s just one small problem with this formula: the church is not Jesus. Though there are certainly clear passages of the New Testament that stress the “incorporation” of believers into Christ, there is quite a bit more emphasis on how Jesus is uniquely Lord, one distinct from those whom follow. Losing sight of this distinction leads to the kinds of linguistic contradictions highlighted above.