A Critique by Bill Isley, MD
The Ragamuffin Gospel (Embracing the Unconditional Love of God) by former Roman Catholic priest Brennan Manning is sweeping through evangelical circles as a true picture of the grace of God in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is published by a well-known evangelical publisher (Multnomah), obviously convincing many that there is no harm to be found within its pages. However, THEOLOGY REALLY DOES MATTER. Faulty theology proper (the Person of God), faulty Christology, and faulty anthropology do not lead to orthodox soteriology, no matter how many familiar theologic terms the writer uses.
The vital issues deal with how the author uses these terms. The ultimate issue to be addressed in dealing with this book is “What is the Gospel?” or “How is a sinner justified before a Holy God?” Since this book is replete with concepts propagated by Christian psychologists, Manning’s treatise will be viewed as representative, in the main, of Christian psychology (even though he is not himself a psychologist and does not purport to speak for this movement).
Manning does briefly mention Christ’s sacrificial death (though he fails to identify consistently His death as a substitutionary sacrifice). He correctly decries the notion that man can in any way make himself acceptable to God by what he does (though he will make man acceptable to God by what he is, as a creature made in the image of God). He attributes God’s salvific process to grace alone. So what could possibly be the issue?
The practical redemption paradigm of Manning (and generally that of Christian psychology, though its proponents would usually profess a more orthodox view) would look something like this:
Man’s failure to meet God’s requirement
God waives the requirement
Man accepted by God
This view sees grace as God being favorably disposed towards man, because man is created in the image of God and because God is desperate to have relationship with man. Man is blessed because he is in Adam. Salvation is essentially received by accepting God’s waiver of punishment.
The biblical paradigm of redemption would look something like this:
Man’s failure to meet God’s requirement
Christ fulfills the requirement by a perfectly righteous life and a perfect propitiatory sacrifice
Man’s sin imputed to Christ and Christ’s righteousness imputed to man
Man accepted by God
Grace is sovereignly bestowed upon men individually and involves the entire process, from the satisfaction of God’s requirement, to the faith for receiving salvation. Salvation is received by turning from any pretense to try to meet God’s standard by works and placing faith only in Christ. Man is blessed, not in Adam, but in Christ.
God’s unfathomable, eternal, saving love is not the “unconditional love” propounded by Manning and Christian psychologists, which is actually the “unconditional acceptance” taught by psychologist Carl Rogers. True salvation involves acceptance by God based on very stringent and highly exacting conditions, conditions which only God could meet, as the Just and the Justifier of sinners.
The God of Manning (and of Christian psychology) makes no demands in justification, so He asks for no allegiance in sanctification. Both a biblical and a psychologized system exhort their flocks to live now in the presence of reality as they perceive it. For Manning, the reality is continual acceptance by God no matter what; Manning’s God is dominated by grandfatherly sentimentality, not Holiness. For the biblicist, life is to be lived for the glory of the Holy One Who redeemed him out of the pit. God is Absolute Sovereign and Ruler.
The sanctification paradigm of Manning and Christian psychology would look something like this:
Man is made in the image of God
Man’s problem: what he does, what others have done to him or might do
to him (including judgment)
God restores man to what he really is as a creature made in the image of God and solves his problems
Man focuses on who he really is as a creature made in the image of God
The biblical paradigm of sanctification would look something like this:
Man is a sinner, totally depraved, dead in trespasses and sins
Man’s problem: who he is (in Adam)
God regenerates man, giving him new life
Man focuses on Who God is and what He has done, realizing his
righteousness is not his own
For Manning, repentance follows salvation, because the focus is on receiving God’s acceptance. Sin is far removed from this transaction in most psychologized systems, though occasionally acknowledged as a defect (man is “wounded” or “broken,” usually seen from the perspective of what others have done to the person). Scripture says unregenerate man is dead in trespasses and sins. For the biblicist, repentance is part and parcel of saving faith.
Manning mistrusts those who would try to correctly handle Scripture. His Ragamuffin Gospel “is not for academicians who would imprison Jesus in the ivory tower of exegesis” (p. 14).
A common theme in Manning is his appeal to multiple sources other than Scripture in building his theology. He says, “Using Scripture, story, symbolism, and personal experience, I focused on the total sufficiency of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ on Calvary” (p. 17). He frequently quotes or refers to Catholic mystics, discusses his own experiences as authoritative, and chronicles the lives of people from non-Christian religions in assembling his work.
Brief Examples from the Book
In Chapter 1, Manning correctly assails a gospel of works, but his view of sin is shallow. He quotes Tillich (certainly a heterodox voice) speaking of a “wave of light” experience “as though a voice were saying”:
“You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now. . . . Do not try to do anything now. . . . Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.” If that happens to us we experience grace. (p. 29).
Manning goes on to say:
Something is radically wrong when the local church rejects a person accepted by Jesus: when a harsh, judgmental and unforgiving sentence is passed on homosexuals; when a divorcee is denied communion; when the child of a prostitute is refused baptism; when an unlaicized priest is forbidden the sacraments (p. 30).
The failure to see sinners as absolutely depraved and alienated from God in their natural state (rather than basically good people with some psychological hang-ups who “slip up” once in awhile) is a major flaw.
In Chapter 2, “Magnificent Monotony,” Manning complains:
In my ministry as a vagabond evangelist, I have encountered shocking resistance to the God whom the Bible defines as Love. The skeptics range from the oily, over-polite professionals who discreetly drop hints of the heresy of universalism, to the Bible thumper who sees only the dusty, robust war God of the Pentateuch, and who insists on restating the cold demands of rule-ridden perfectionism.
Our resistance to the furious love of God may be traced to the church, our parents and pastors, and life itself. They have hidden the face of a compassionate God, we protest, and favored a God of holiness, justice, and wrath (pp. 36,37).
The failure to realize that the God of Sinai is also the God of Calvary is a serious problem. As we noted earlier, we must understand the requirements for redemption that God laid down in the Old Testament to be able to adequately understand the achievement of redemption in the New Testament.
Reiterating his view of grace and revealing his concept of salvation, Manning notes:
Over the years, the growing consciousness of radical grace has wrought profound changes in my self-awareness. Justification by grace through faith means that I know myself accepted by God as I am. When my head is enlightened and my heart is pierced by this truth, I can accept myself as I am. Genuine self-acceptance is not derived from the power of positive thinking, mind-games, or pop psychology. It is an act of faith in the God of grace (p. 49, italics his).
In Manning’s psychologized view of grace, self-acceptance is seen as the key to growth. Manning’s God is a universal Father of man, undistinguished from those with whom He has a special redemptive relationship. Manning’s gospel offers acceptance of self, not deliverance from sin.
Manning gives his view of the redemptive process:
For “experiencing God’s love in Jesus Christ means experiencing that one has been unreservedly accepted, approved and infinitely loved, that one can and should accept oneself and one’s neighbor. Salvation is joy in God which expresses itself in joy in and with one’s neighbor.” (p. 63).
This is clearly a psychological salvation, not the full, eternal redemption purchased by Christ’s death and resurrection.
Manning’s “inner child” based anthropology (p. 64) leads to incredible statements:
If we maintain the open-mindedness of children, we challenge fixed ideas and established structures, including our own. We listen to people in other denominations and religions. We don’t find demons in those with whom we disagree. We don’t cozy up to people who mouth our jargon. If we are open, we rarely resort to either-or, either creation or evolution, liberty or law, sacred or secular, Beethoven or Madonna. We focus on both-and, fully aware that God’s truth cannot be imprisoned in a small definition…. But the open mind realizes that reality, truth, and Jesus Christ are incredibly open-ended (p. 65).
The uniqueness of God’s revelation in the Living Word and the written Word could hardly be more rigorously attacked.
Manning’s approach to the professing Christian is revealed in his view of sanctification. Rather than seeing man as transformed out of the kingdom of darkness (his natural state) and into the kingdom of light, he speaks of God’s love “mak[ing] us who we really are” (p. 111). This is common in the psychologized gospel, with fixation on man created in the image of God and possessing great worth and potential, rather than man as fallen and the enemy of God.
Manning defines evangelism: “To evangelize a person is to say to him or her: you, too, are loved by God in the Lord Jesus” (p. 120). Furthermore, he quotes psychiatrist Gerald May saying:
Honesty before God requires the most fundamental risk of faith we can take: the risk that God is good, that God does love us unconditionally. It is in taking this risk that we rediscover our dignity. To bring the truth of ourselves, just as we are, to God, just as God is, is the most dignified thing we can do in this life” (pp. 138,139).
Manning says in a later chapter that Jesus “insisted that his Father is crazy with love, that God is a kooky God who can scarcely bear to be without us” (p. 165). He says, “No, the love of our God isn’t dignified at all, and apparently that’s the way he expects our love to be” (p. 167). He further says:
Perhaps the simplest, though certainly not the easiest place to start, is with myself. Carl Jung, the great psychiatrist, once reflected that we are all familiar with the words of Jesus, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me.” Then Jung asks a probing question: “What if you discovered that the least of the brethren of Jesus, the one who needs your love the most, the one you can help the most by loving, the one to whom your love will be most meaningful—what if you discovered that this least of the brethren of Jesus… is you?” (p. 168, italics his).
What would an occult psychiatrist like Carl Jung, who rejected Christianity and considered all religions to be useful myths, know about Jesus’ love? The Bible says that people already love themselves (Mark 12:31; Eph. 5:29) and therefore does not teach people to love themselves.
A man-centered gospel will always exalt man by downplaying his true sin nature. It will then reconstruct any and all elements of its theology to be consistent with that man-centeredness. Manning has clearly accomplished that objective in this, and presumably, other works. Man desires an egalitarian God Who is not sovereign and Who would never judge a person.
In evaluating this and any “practical” theological work, it is vitally important that the reader examine how the writer actually uses theological terms (in what sense do his examples and descriptions clarify what he means by their usage). One must not conclude that a work is orthodox just because the writer uses theologically correct words.
Manning’s views are very consistent with those advocated by most contemporary Christian psychologists. With the popularity of this movement in the evangelical church today, it is no wonder that this book has been widely read and acclaimed by professing Christians. According to Christianity Today (May 2003) Manning has been giving psychologist Larry Crabb “occasional spiritual direction for the last 14 years.”
Church history in America would suggest that the fall of God-centeredness during the 19th century and the rise of man-centered, method-focused evangelism and sanctification would supply an ample framework for the acceptance of the works of psychologists and psychology advocates like Manning.
PAL V11N4 (July-August 2003)