Brian McLaren thinks that traditional Protestantism has got the answer to the question ‘What is the Gospel?’ seriously wrong, and I agree with him. Clearly the gospel has something to do with things like atonement and justification and perhaps ‘penal substitution’, but they have been misleadingly framed in a claustrophobic narrative of personal salvation. I’m not sure that McLaren constructs the alternative narrative with sufficient precision – he has taken too many short-cuts for my liking (McLaren is a pastor and communicator, not a theologian) and still exhibits an annoying tendency to obscure the place and calling of the covenantal people of God in the discussion of Jesus’ significance. But I think he is broadly on the right lines when the says that the gospel is the announcement that ‘God’s benevolent society is already among us’ (138, italics removed), a ‘summons to rethink everything and enter a life of retraining as disciples or learners of a new way of life, citizens of a new kingdom’ (139), or the fulfilment of the three-dimensional biblical narrative of creation, liberation, and the hope of a peaceable kingdom (140).
But what about Romans? Is it possible to fit this classic text of Protestant theology into this new perspective on the gospel? It is, no doubt, presumptuous of me to say it (sorry, Brian), but here, frankly, I think McLaren is on weak ground. He makes claims that are likely to be difficult to defend exegetically: on the one hand, that Paul was not trying to define the gospel at all but to ‘clean up the mess that Jesus had created through his gospel’ (142); and on the other, that the Letter is a progressive, iterative attempt to address the immediate practical problem of relations between Jews and Gentiles. The fundamental mistake is made, I think, when he argues that Romans does not present a ‘linear prose argument’ – the sort of genre that might be the ‘best way to teach engineering or refrigerator repair’ (144) – but works in circuitous, circling, repetitive, poetic fashion, restating the same basic thesis in different ways, through different metaphors. This sounds cool, but it really does not do justice to Paul’s argument and will only provoke howls of indignant laughter from the neo-Reformed camp.
In my view Romans is primarily an exposition of the gospel that Paul has preached throughout the eastern empire (Rom. 1:1-4, 16; 15:19), but this is an announcement concerning the political-religious implications for the whole Greek-Roman oikoumenē of the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead. Everything else flows from that: the impending wrath against Jew and Greek, the eschatological hope of justification through trust in the way of suffering and vindication demonstrated by Jesus, and the emergence of a community of Jews and Gentiles that is willing to pursue that same eschatological trajectory in the confidence that the God of Israel will ultimately be confessed in the ancient world.
The seven ‘moves’ by which McLaren adapts the argumentative structure of Romans to an overriding theme of Jewish-Gentile relations (147-157) are uncontroversial in themselves, but they miss the point of the Letter – a hurried rereading of the chapter reveals, for example, that there is no explicit reference at all to the theme of ‘justification’ or ‘vindication’ and barely a mention of ‘righteousness’. There are better ways, in my view, of reconciling Romans with Jesus’ announcement to Israel that the kingdom of God is at hand – and indeed with the emergence of a new creation and peaceable kingdom (for which see my forthcoming book on Romans).