Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

Francis McNab: Ahead of his time or 100 years too late?

Here is a talk I gave at Ringwood Uniting Church on Sunday 15th March 2009.

It draws heavily on the early chapters of  Resurrection and Discipleship: Interpretive Models, Biblical Reflections, Theological Consequences by Thorwald Lorenzen. The talk is vastly simplified compared to the book, errors are my own.

If you are not interested in the current debate within the Uniting Church in Victoria, and are more interested in the theology, skip ahead to the section “Traditional”.

Francis McNab: Ahead of his time or 100 years too late?

Paul Dyson

There has been much heated debate about the advertising campaign launched by Francis McNab of Collins Street Uniting Church. I think much of it has been people talking at cross purposes generating more heat than light. So I thought today we could step back a little and have a look at the theological frameworks behind the positions of the people in the debate. So in a spirit of cool and calm reflection I wanted to entitle this talk:

Is McNab a Nazi?

However, after taking counsel from Elva and Stan I changed the title to:

Francis McNab: Ahead of his time or 100 years too late?

Francis McNab spent $120,000 on an advertising campaign which included billboards stating: “The Ten Commandments, the most negative document ever written”. He also said that Abraham was probably a concoction, Moses a mass murderer and Jesus Christ, very important, but not necessarily the son of God. He calls for a New Faith, and he comes up with his own new 10 commandments.

The Synod meeting last year responded criticising him for causing deep offense to Christians, Jews and Muslims. I found this response somewhat obtuse. It’s a bit like getting the mafia for tax evasion – sure they did it but it sort of misses the point. Isn’t there some larger issue going on here than just causing offence.

I also have problems when one side says the other is causing offence to a third party. It is a great way to shut down debate, rather than encourage it and have the ideas properly aired. I have not found much engagement with what McNab actually said. Apparently his views are either obviously good or obviously bad.

I’ll have a look a little later on, but now back to the unofficial title of this talk: Is McNab a Nazi?

On the internet there is a Law known as Godwin’s law. It states “As an Internet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Any debate on the internet of a reasonable length will involve someone saying the other side is just like Hitler. And at this point, the discussion should really end. It’s run it’s course, because where can you go after the other side says, “You’re just like Hitler”.

Now I am thoroughly sick of the debate between Liberals and Fundamentalists that is continuing with the latest McNab controversy, so I am very keen to compare one side with the Nazis so we can declare any further discussion pointless and move on. However, I have been dissuaded from making such a rash comparison, so I’m glad to see that others have beaten me to it.

By highlighting the offence caused to Jews the Synod was getting close to a Hitler comparison, but they didn’t quite go that far. So it wasn’t the end of the debate. So I kept looking.

In the church we are a bit more nuanced in our discussion so you have to read between the lines to find it. But I was pleased to see in February Crosslight a letter from Rev Dr Dorothy Lee, lecturer at Trinity Theological College. She writes:

The ‘new faith’ Macnab proposes is not new at all. Some of his views go back to heretical movements in the second century. Other views derive from the liberalism of nineteenth century Europe, particularly Germany – views that the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, so forthrightly exposed in the early decades of the twentieth century. Barth showed how liberal theologians had become throughly bourgeois in their values, completely conformed to the spirit of the world.

Let me just spell that out for you. Dorothy Lee talks of views: Completely conformed to the spirit of early twentieth century Germany. Or, to put it more plainly: McNab is a Nazi.

Hooray, someone has said it. Perhaps we can all go home now, and get on with more fruitful debate.

But I’m afraid she was being too subtle, so I’ll have to explore these issues further. So lets look at what is going on here.

I’m going to outline four theological models or positions. These models are in historical order and in my opinion they get better as they go along. The first is the worst and the last is the best.

So a bit of concentration will be required, but as most of you grew up before the invention of television I don’t think it will be a problem. For the rest of you, I’ve made overheads that you can watch. [Successive overheads contained the single words ‘overheads’, ‘that’, ‘you’, ‘can’, ‘watch’.] I hope I have catered for everyone.


Let’s begin with a common enemy: the first model, which I will kindly call the “Traditional View”. But you may know it as “Fundamentalist”, “Literalist”, “Conservative”. It’s the view, if you grew up in the Liberal tradition like me, the view that we love to hate. It makes us cringe to think that non-Christians think we are all like this. Let me make a few points about it.

Start with the question: How can we make the faith intelligible to the person in the street?

Answer: Ask them to read the Bible. It contains the testimony of credible witnesses. They tell of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. A rational person cannot doubt these witness because they were there, so what they tell is true. God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. The tomb was empty, the bodily risen Christ appeared to people, proving His divinity and proving the inspiration of the Bible as God’s word. Therefore the Bible is inerrant and its plain meaning is the Truth.

Faith is seen as accepting that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead, meaning he came back to life, walked around. You also need to accept that Mary was a Virgin, Jesus could perform miracles that broke physical laws etc.

I think we are all familiar with this, so I’ll keep moving. But let me make one point about the attitude to the wider culture. In this model the church is at odds with the culture and stands apart from it.


In nineteenth century Europe the second model arose: Liberalism. This is the model that Francis McNab is working out of, taken to its logical conclusion. And when you take anything to its logical conclusion you’re looking for trouble.

Let’s start with the same question as before: How can we make the faith intelligible to the person in the street?

Well, the average person knows generally about science, they know people can’t walk on water, that virgins don’t give birth, that dead people are not resurrected. If we want them (and ourselves) to have faith we can’t go against science. They may also know about historical criticism: that you can’t believe everything you read, and that actually helps us. If we look critically at the Bible we can get rid of all the superstition and get to what lies behind all that, the kernel of truth of Christianity.

It also answers another criticism of the Traditional model. Should faith really be about accepting an historical fact? Shouldn’t faith have more to do with belief in God than in history? Shouldn’t the struggle of faith concern forgiveness, repentance, belief in God, rather than accepting a supernatural event? Isn’t that just getting in the way of faith in God? Our faith must appeal to reason, in particular scientific and historical critical reason, if it is to have any relevance.

This sort of position was argued by Friedrich Schleiermacher at the beginning of the nineteenth century and continued its development throughout the 1800s. It was carried on by Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich in the 20th century.

So forget about the Virgin Birth, the miracles of Jesus. Rather than focus on what happened to Jesus in the resurrection, which would contradict science, focus on the faith of the disciples after the resurrection.

Or forget the resurrection altogether and concentrate on the life and teachings of Jesus. Perhaps we could remove all superstition and find the true “historical” Jesus.

This has been liberating for people who find that they can be Christians without having to deny science and accept a pre-enlightenment world view. Particularly people who are questioning their Fundamentalist faith.

And Liberalism is strongly adopted by the Jesus Seminar, whose members feature prominently in the series “Saving Jesus” that we studied in our faith sharing groups. And you probably also know that Francis McNab has been honoured by the Jesus Seminar. And so from this position he says that Abraham was probably a concoction, Moses a mass murderer and so on.

Not that long ago the Jesus Seminar engaged in yet another fruitless attempt to find the historical Jesus. I say fruitless because, as with past quests for the historical Jesus, you end up with a Jesus who looks like the people searching for him. In this case a wise sage or teacher who is usually calm and measured, not unlike an academic at the sort of university where the Jesus seminar people spend their time.

As the Liberal model is a reaction to the Traditional, or Literal model, Liberals tend to see everyone else as a Fundamentalist. McNab’s supporters often put their arguments in this form, you are either enlightened like us, or fundamentalist. McNab on Stateline: “Some said I shouldn’t be allowed to be here anymore and that I should be drummed out of town. I would expect that kind of reaction from people who take the scriptures far too literally.”

Its position in the culture? In this model the church tries to be at the centre of culture, in order to transform it to make it more humane.

After about 100 years of this sort of talk there was a serious backlash from the Traditionalists. One form this took was a series of pamphlets from 1910-1915 attacking the Liberal position. They were funded by two wealthy oil tycoons and, as they said, were “sent to 300,000 ministers and missionaries and other workers in different parts of the world”.   These pamphlets were called The Fundamentals and from these we get the term “Fundamentalist”. They are on the web and they have detailed attacks on “Higher Criticism” of the Bible on which Liberalism is based. The Liberal ideas are sensibly attacked – far better than things I see today.

Well sometimes not so sensibly. When looking at “The Fundamentals” the name “Dyson” caught my eye.

The very first essay. Volume one, Chapter one: The History of the Higher Criticism, is written by Canon Dyson Hague. He starts out with his arguments undermining the Higher Criticism of the Liberals but before too long says the following:

German Fancies

In the second place, some of the most powerful exponents of the modern Higher Critical theories have been Germans, and it is notorious to what length the German fancy can go in the direction of the subjective and of the conjectural. For hypothesis-weaving and speculation, the German theological professor is unsurpassed.

So what he is really saying here about the Liberals is: They’re just a pack of lying Germans. Of course, what he wanted to say was: They’re just a pack of lying Nazis.

But the Nazi party was still ten years away. So he couldn’t say that. But I maintain that he would have if he could have. And so this is the point at which Godwin’s law applies to this debate. And so 1910 is when we all should have realized that we were just calling each other Nazis and that it was time to move on to something else.


That something else brings us to the third model. And I want to strongly emphasize that there are other models besides Liberal and Fundamentalist. I was looking at a couple of Marcus Borg’s books this week and he continually frames the debate in terms of Liberal and Fundamentalist. I’m saying there are not just two ways – not just Fundamentalist and Liberal.

This third model has been called “Evangelical” by its proponents, but that is confusing as now the Fundamentalists call themselves “Evangelicals” so I’ll have to use the ugly term “Neo-orthodox”.

In 1933 Karl Barth and others founded the underground Confessing Church soon after the Nazis formed the Protestant Riech Church unifying many churches.

Barth felt that the Liberal emphasis on faith is correct, but that the faith had become too far removed from Jesus Christ and too conformed to the culture. The Neo-orthodox position on the wider culture was that of Christ against Culture. They saw that the church should be radically against the earthly powers, in their case the Nazi party. And to do this the church had to offer something distinct, something unique. And it had it. They emphasised the complete otherness of God. A God who is known through revelation.

They saw the uniqueness of Jesus. He is the primary revelation of God. Not just a revelation, but the primary revelation. If we follow God, then we cannot follow earthly rulers – in Barth’s case the earthly ruler was Hitler. If you do not put Jesus at the centre of your religion, you will find someone or something else. Some churches had found Nationalism and Hitler. If Francis McNab does not have Jesus Christ at the centre, who does he have? Perhaps it is Sigmund Freud? Or Carl Jung? None of these people [shown on overhead], not Hitler, nor Freud, nor Obama, nor Bono, should be at the centre of our religion, we are centred on Jesus Christ.

None of this “Neo-orthodox” position requires a literal view of the Bible. And none of this requires throwing away science. Although the Neo-orthodox did feel that the Liberals were too beholden to science, allowing science to dictate which parts of the Bible were superstitious and so should not be taken seriously. Rather, the Bible should be taken on it’s own terms. We shouldn’t try and impose a scientific rational world view on the Bible. That is anachronistic and will lead to misunderstanding.

When a ghost appears in Shakespeare’s Richard III, do we just ignore that scene, or even ignore the whole play? Are we embarrassed by it’s pre-scientific world view? No. We understand it and even embrace it for the purposes of getting into the play and fully understanding it. “Are there really eleven ghosts in Richard III! That’s cool.” The same should be true of the Bible.

Q: How can we appeal to the person in the street?

A: We need to have something distinctive to say. “Be nice to each other”, is not enough. We need to get back to the saving power of Jesus Christ.

If we are embarrassed to say “We love Jesus”, to pray in public, to speak of sin and evil, as well as joy and hope, what have we to say to people? Most importantly, if we stop reading and engaging with the Bible because we have already extracted the kernel of truth from it, how will we let God change us?

Note that when someone says “Evangelical” or maybe even “Neo-orthodox” to a Liberal they hear “Fundamentalist”. Seeing things this way makes any sort of sensible debate, such as in the letters of Crosslight, impossible. The Liberals define their opposition as Fundamentalist no matter what they are actually saying. And some who call themselves Evangelical are Fundamentalists, so the terms aren’t even used clearly. It’s a real mess.

Liberation Theology

And that bring us to the forth model.

But first a warning from a cat. [Cat picture] Three steps into his epic journey. Fluffy decided it was too much work. We have done three models and there is only one to go. Please do not depart yet for the second service. There is only one model to go.

The fourth model is Liberation Theology.

While the Western theological world was getting in a mess, theologians in the third world were rejecting all these theologies as they didn’t really include them. How can you give alms to the poor when you are the poor? It doesn’t make any sense.

They looked at the Bible and found stories about poor people like themselves and decided that the first world had appropriated these stories and told them bad theology. The theologies weren’t so much wrong, as irrelevant. Irrelevant to the person in the street, if you lived in the third world. So, the question now becomes

Q. How to do we appeal to the person in the street, given we are in the third world?

A. “Believe in Jesus Christ” doesn’t cut it when the church is part of the wealthy and powerful who are the reason you don’t have enough food to eat. Look in the Bible and you’ll see a Jesus who was poor, a refugee, like yourself.   A Jesus who spoke of liberation, a God who raised Jesus as a sign of hope and an act of liberation. That is an answer for the third world.

Even Barth hinted that this was the way to go in saying that we cannot really know Jesus “if we do not know Him as this poor man, as this (if we may risk the dangerous word) partisan of the poor, and finally as this revolutionary”.

It was not far from here to “God’s preferential option for the poor” developed by Peruvian theologian Gustavo Guterriez in his “A Theology of Liberation” (1972). Finally something after I was born!

God is not a God of the rich, nor of the rulers, not a God of the managers nor the middle class, he is a God of the poor. And where the books of the Bible are written by poor people to poor people, it is the poor, and those in dialog with the poor, who have the best insights into what it means.

So when it comes to the Resurrection, the question is not whether some event happened 2000 years ago. The Resurrection should not be discussed without the cross, and the cross cannot be discussed without discussing the crosses in this world and that implies the church’s mission of justice and liberation. Faith in the resurrection is shown by working for justice and liberation here and now.

In the West this theology has been developed by Jurgen Moltmann, first with his “Theology of Hope” (1967) and then “The Crucified God” (1973) and many other works continuing to this day.

The current pope, while working for John Paul II, silenced Brazillian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff in 1985. Just 2 years ago Jon Sobrino in El Salvador was declared in error by the pope for his teaching on this matter. Now there is a relevant debate about what should be allowed to be taught – unlike the McNab controversy which hardly anyone outside the church cares about.

So what is Liberation Theology’s attitude to the World? As with the Neo-orthodox position it is Christ against culture.  And not content to sit on the outside like the Fundamentalists, but demanding and enacting liberation.

So we moved from the Traditional position of needing to accept the proof of miraculous events in history. To the Liberal emphasis on faith not proof, to the Neo-orthodox emphasis of specific faith in Jesus Christ, to the Liberation model, of faith in Jesus Christ the liberator of the poor.

The governing paradigm is no longer science. Not that we are against science it is just largely irrelevant. As well as using historical criticism of texts, we also use sociology, economics, politics to understand our situation and work out how to change it. We use narrative techniques to place ourselves inside the stories of the Bible and have the stories read us and our lives. In this we find them extremely relevant to our lives. This is a faith we can take to the streets, to the people, if they have ears to hear it.

This model influenced many at Ringwood Uniting in the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. There the Black churches wrote the Kairos document: Third world churches speaking to the first world, saying you are like Paul on the road to Damascus – repent, stop what you are doing and turn around.

You talk of reconciliation without justice or repentance. And when you do talk of justice it is reform not fundamental change. You address your appeals to those at the top. The change we need is radical change of structures. This will only come from the people, not the top. Condemning all violence while trying to remain neutral. Yet, calling actions of blacks ‘violence’, while calling police actions ‘misconduct’ or even ‘atrocities’ but never violence. Your talk of fault on both sides and calls for reconciliation do not help us. Your condemning of violence while ignoring the causes does not help us. To help us, you need to take sides.

It is interesting to have this in mind and consider the Assembly’s response to the Israeli invasion of Gaza recently. I don’t have time to look at it now, but you can see how these ideas have help shaped the response.

This is where I see theologians like Thorwald Lorenzen (from whom I got these four theological models), Dorothy Solle (from whom I got the positions on culture) and Ched Myers. I see them continuing that discussion, working out what is means for us in the West or North. Ched Myers suggests that we are like Peter denying who Jesus is, while warming our hands by the imperial fire. We are in denial that we are aligned with empire.


So I in Crosslight I see debate between Traditionalists and Liberals that is over 100 years old and had moved on, before all of us were born. The Evangelicals in the debate know they aren’t Liberals or Literalists but don’t seem to be able to articulate this in a way that the Liberals can hear it. But the Evangelicals are often conservative not progressive. And where are the Liberation theologians? Probably somewhere else as this debate is largely irrelevant to them and to the person in the street.

I see the Uniting Church in Victoria and Ringwood Uniting as largely operating out of the Liberal model with influences of the Liberation model. The actions of the Liberation model have influenced the church, but very little of the theology that goes along with the action has made it through our middle class filters.

Our theology, (as opposed to our actions), seems overly concentrated on psychology rather than politics, giving it an individualistic personal flavour, rather than a corporate eccelsiology that is politically located. Finally, we could learn something from the Neo-orthodox about the importance of continuing the faith. When someone says they love Jesus and have accepted him into their hearts, they may not be a Fundamentalist, they may be a Neo-Orthodox Evangelical or a Liberation Theologian, a model or two ahead of Liberals as far as history goes.

Finally, I leave you with the question behind all of these models:

Q. How do we appeal to the person in the street?