Archive for August, 2013

The Emergent Church

Posted: August 14, 2013 in Uncategorized

Introduction

The Emergent Church is a phrase recently added to our modern christian cultural vernacular.  And while there are many who would claim to fall under the umbrella of such a label, far fewer would know how to properly define it so as to clearly express the differences evident between the Emergent Church and “traditional” churches.  Indeed the range of theological ascent represented by the Emergent Church would be so wide that any one person attempting to define its distinctives would likely fail in doing so.  Nonetheless, the purpose of this paper is to show that, in successfully presenting a new genre of Christian ecclesiology and evangelism, the Emergent Church has failed to provide a positive definition of itself and so suffers the same fate at nearly all points in its theology.

Emergent: Self-definition or Lack Thereof

This is a decidedly difficult task given the diversity of the Emergent Church movement, which encompasses everything from traditionally orthodox, to ultra-liberal Christian adherents.  Even as this writer would assert that there is no such thing as “liberal Christians” in a theological context, still, this paper will not exhaustively address what it means to be a Christian

, so much as it will be an assessment of those who call themselves Christians and also Emergent, investigating to see if their theological assertions are internally consistent with what is revealed in scripture.

The need for this writing is self-evident in the consideration that the Emergent Church seems to question such firm bedrock as the sufficiency of the scriptures as the sole rule of faith and practice for the church.  This study is needed to reveal the firm theological moorings, if any, the Emergent Church possesses in comparison to traditional churches, whose theological moorings are long established but regarded by Emergents as needing modernization to remain effective in the post-modern, even post-christian context in which the church finds itself.

It is necessary to allow any position to define itself, so the question of definition will be posed to the Emergents themselves; what does it mean to be Emergent, and what does that mean in the context of the church? Dan Kimball of Vintage Faith Church says this of the Emergent movement, “…I began using the words ‘emerging church’ to describe churches that are exploring what it means to be the church as we enter emerging cultures.”

  He also says, “the dictionary defines the word ‘emerging’ as ‘what is coming to the surface.’”

  In his discussion of what it means to be Emergent, Dan indicates that the Emergent Church is somehow defined by those things coming to the surface in society and therefore the church is reacting to what is experienced in therein.  One would thank Dan for his willingness to clearly define terms where all others seem to avoid such a definition.  In fact, so elusive is a positive definition of what is meant by Emergent that it becomes somewhat itself definitional of the Emergent movement.

Since Dan Kimball is nearly the only person amongst Emergent pastors to offer a positive definition for what is meant by “emerging,” one would hardly be able to apply such a definition to the greater majority, as it is evident that such a definition would not be universally acceptable.  In fact, the idea of a anything presented as universally acceptable flies in the face of the Emergents’ desire not to be “pigeon holed.”  Therefore the definition offered by Dan Kimball is acceptable only for him, and cannot even remotely be considered ecumenical.

Finding oneself back at square one, the first characteristic of the Emergent mindset manifests itself: being defined by an unwillingness to be defined.  The Emergent movement is less than impressed with labels.  Paul Enns finds the same to be true and states, “the emerging church advocates do not normally embrace theological positions or doctrinal statements with dogmatism.”

  Emergents would say that an attempt to define things in such a way lends itself to caricature and therefore is not a reliable way of accurately relating to one’s position.  This tendency not to want to be labeled even for clarity’s sake by way of a definition is self-evident in the continual reference throughout Listening to the Beliefs of Emergent Churches; the desire to meet face to face due to the perceived “inadequacy” of text in communicating such profound and involved concepts as one’s beliefs is repeated exponentially.  And to a large extent, this underlies the problem.

Assessment of Emergent Theology

It is as if Emergents believe that everyone must physically meet with every other one in a one on one discussion if anyone’s beliefs are to be understood accurately by another.  Dan kimball says, “writing our opinions in this format is difficult, because it is only words without facial expressions; no cup of coffee or a pint of Guiness is on the table as we chat theology.”

  To be sure, a person to person discussion is ideal and has the highest communication value by virtue of the many routes communication is able to use when two people meet in person, but how many of the most pivotal, and longest lasting discussions of doctrine and theology have been written down and preserved for the benefit of generations?  Countless.  So the desire to meet face to face, while effective for those involved, betrays the purpose of writing a book, that purpose being to include in the discussion as many as possible, even if as only observers.  And in the context of writing a book, saving deeper discussion for a face to face meeting only raises more questions, and answers them for only a select few who attend such a meeting.

Assessment of Emergent Theology

A pivotal theological concern comes into play at this point.  The efficacy of text on a page and its ability to communicate great theological truth, authoritative for all eras, is here said to be inadequate at best.  What is it the Emergents think Christians possess in the Bible?  What is the doctrine they affirm regarding the scriptures?  All the contributors to Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches except Mark Driscoll describe a view in contradiction to traditional and historical views of the Bible in a similar way as Dan Kimball expresses, 

“When I used to hold the Bible in my hands, I viewed it as the ultimate ‘answer-everything’ book and ultimate ‘how-to’ manual. I was basically taught to dissect the Bible, to take it apart piece by piece like dissecting a laboratory animal.  I experienced the Bible being used like a textbook or an auto manual, where you looked up certain problems and how to solve them.”

 

As evidenced by a great multitude of creeds and confessions and writings, Christians of all eras and contexts have referred to the scriptures as the sole rule of faith and practice.  Some creeds state this truth in different ways, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith that says, referring to the scriptures, “All which are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life.

  And each creed lists a positive assertion of a standpoint on scripture amongst its first considerations.  Why?  Because anything one could know about a being such as God would need to be disclosed by that being, to His finite creation who are limited in knowledge.  Even John Burke, one of the more conservative Emergents, admits as much, saying, “we cannot know much at all about God unless God reveals himself to us. And here the uniqueness of the Scriptures comes to bear.”

 

And one might say, “wait, here we have an Emergent pastor proclaiming the role and sufficiency of scripture, and you’re asserting they don’t.”  Yes.  John Burke is Emergent and has admitted the role and authority of scripture in an orthodox way.  However, one must consider the larger picture and submit John’s, truly anyone’s proclamation of belief to other things said to see if they are internally consistent with themselves.  In this case the problem arises early when we keep in mind that even John Burke questions the ability of text based communication to sufficiently deliver the substance of one’s beliefs, preferring oral interaction, while at the same time affirming the sufficiency of the scriptures.  Of course the scriptures would represent an inspired text, which is impossible for any of we believers to produce, however the writing we have in the Bible is still text based, and so if the Emergents desired to be consistent with historical Christianity, they would need to delete from their discourse such rejection of text based communication and its ability to communicate sufficiently one’s beliefs.  The end assessment is that text is wholly sufficient to deliver the intended communication, and its ability to preserve that message is unrivaled.  It would more so be attributable to the writer’s abilities to communicate effectively via text then it would be attributable to the characteristic communicative limitations of text.

The irony of that last statement is not lost on this writer as he writes in text an analysis of its ability to communicate concepts and ideas to an audience.

A second difficulty comes when considering how the Emergent Church interacts with facts.  That is to say that the Emergent tendency is to see facts as subjective, or at least ultimately unknowable with certainty, while also seeing subjectivity as more influential on facts than the inescapable nature of those facts in and of themselves.  That is to say that the Emergent epistemology becomes an issue when discussing anything of transcendent substance.  Allowing Emergent Church leaders to state their stance for themselves regarding positive, irresistible, inescapable knowledge the likes of which all people must acknowledge and affirm, Dan Kimball says referring to the sort of Christian he does not want to be, “overly opinionated Christian leaders who talk as if they have access to God’s truth and know all answers, and believe everyone else is wrong but them.”

  The question is begged; is not the Bible God’s truth, and so we exactly, though not in totality, have access to God’s truth?  Karen Ward says, commenting on the idea of positive knowledge and the evangelical tendency of “harboring parochial cultural perspectives, seeing divine truth as totally knowable and ‘locked in’ by human beings, and clinging to forms of unexamined biblicism that often come off as arrogant and patronizing.”

  And again, John Burke says:

 “Christians can agree with the postmodern culture in at least one thesis: ‘no human has a lock on all truth.’ Maybe our modern systems of theology have blinded us to this reality, causing us to think we really have Scripture systematized, and therefore, have God all figured out. But our knowledge really is biased by our cultural upbringing, and nobody knows it all (or has a 100 percent accurate concept of God).”

 

To be accurate, these statements seem to apply to “all knowledge of all truth,” which only God has.  However, the context of each of these statements and many more found in Emergent discourse refutes this idea and more accurately describes anyone who would claim to positively know anything.  Along with society, one who knows something based on irresistible fact, and asserts that such fact is inescapably so for all peoples, places, and times, is therefore one who is arrogant.

Aside from each of the aforementioned statements from Emergent leaders being self refuting, and thus illogical and false, indeed each of these statements are more arrogant than anyone proclaiming indisputable, resistless, objective, transcendent truth would be guilty of.  The illogical nature of these statements comes in realizing that though they denounce a knowledge of transcendent truth as arrogance, in each statement a transcendent truth is being claimed.  And without basis that same truth therefore is asserted merely on the authority of the one making the assertion, which is, in the end, found to be no authority at all.  So an unsound transcendent truth is being presented as proof of the unaccessibility of transcendent truth.  The true arrogance comes when one simply asserts such unsound truth, claiming it to be fact, standing on their own authority or even society’s for that matter, in contradiction to all of observable creation, sound reason, and history.  Of course this does not address the many and sundry fallacies involved with each of the previously cited statements, however one affirming a Christian epistemology will have already thoroughly refuted such statements without even considering the individual truth claims.

Remembering that this is a theology paper, the reason logic and reason and facts are theological is because they exist in and of themselves as necessary, inescapable attributes of creation, and so in their existence they say something about God.  Truth exists, and is inescapable because it is an attribute of God shared in His creation.

  For Example, this fact of self-evident, transcendent truth reveals itself when one is asked to “prove” any one of the basic laws of logic.  Since they simply exist as derivative attributes of God, who is self-existent and wholly independent,

 there is no way to prove them; they simply exist and are irresistible by all created things.  So, they are true by virtue of the impossibility that there could be a contrary state of affairs, or by the impossibility of the contrary.  Since any logical rule cannot be disproved, then it is therefore affirmed by resistless logic to be true, for all things, at all times, in all places.

Commenting on this same difficulty with Emergent epistemology, Dr. John S. Hammett says this, “leaders in the emerging church, despite their affirmations of their belief in truth, have not yet critiqued the postmodern skepticism toward the possibility or validity of truth claims.”

  He goes on to conclude, based on his hypothesis that Emergent leaders and so churches have not sufficiently critiqued postmodernism, saying that “ironically, the more emerging churches target the postmodern generation, the more they risk becoming what they oppose, a religious reflection of our consumer culture.”

 

Conclusion

Essential and inescapable truths based on God’s character and nature are made manifest when engaging with the Emergent Church.  Where Emergents assert “the truth about God cannot be known,” a thoroughly Christian epistemology replies, “I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in vain.’  I the LORD speak the truth; I declare what is right”

 or perhaps, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

  Just these two verses, taken rightly are enough to render flaccid the perceived need for an Emergent movement in the church that shares a postmodern worldview with an unbelieving society.  If that same church places any authority whatsoever in the Bible, where such statements as “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”

 are uttered by Jesus Himself, then that church and its members will find itself exactly where the Emergent Church movement finds itself: battling to meaningfully define itself while rejecting the very concept of truth, almost en toto.  An Emergent Church leader would seemingly have to do some exegetical acrobatics to deal with what “no one” means as cited above in John 14:6.  Accurate representation of Emergents would demand that one acknowledges that Emergent Church leaders and adherents would not disagree with a sound exegesis of this text, and be compelled to agree with the claim of Jesus that there is but one way to come to the Father.

Interestingly, this brings up another point that has thus far only been vaguely hinted at.  When anything is described as “emergent” it is in the context of development, progression, a coming out of something to another thing.  Keeping that in mind, perhaps the Emergent Church movement has inadvertently provided a definition, or at very least a description of itself.  In many of the materials here dealt with, the Emergent movement is intimated to emerging generations

 who are emerging from school, from their parent’s care, from something lesser to something greater,

 and developing appropriate categories and thoughts along the way.  Innate to this description of those who are emerging is a certain sense of immaturity, not necessarily as a liability or personality flaw, but as a natural characteristic akin to the emerging-one’s age and experience.  In much the same way, the Emergent Church displays the same qualities.  In seeking to reach and therefore be composed of an emerging generation the Emergent Church has fallen victim to the same tendencies that define the immaturity noted within those emerging ones who make up their constituency.  The seriousness of this observation is realized when consideration is given to the fact that while an individual may “emerge” from whatever it is they are coming out of and then be forever changed by the act of emerging, a church whose claim is (whether admitted or not) to know objective truth is not to be defined nor founded upon the activity of emerging.  While a person can afford such immaturity for a time and in varying degrees, a church cannot.

Neither can a church leader afford to be defined by such immaturity.  This is the entire thrust and purpose behind having Elders.  In 2 Timothy 2:24-26 there is given explicit instruction for church leaders: Elders/Pastors.  Amongst these instructions are, “the Lord’s servant” must be able to teach.  This teaching is then described as being gentle, not resentful, not quarrelsome.  The reason the Elder’s must be able to teach, and the reason that teaching must be gentle, is because, as the text reveals, things of eternal importance are at stake.  And of course, one would not be able to teach if that one had not already invested considerable personal time and consideration to the scriptures.  This is not to say that knowing the scriptures is the only requirement of and Elder, but certainly an Elder would could not be one who has not done this.  Therefore, in addition to the call of God to spiritual leadership of a body of believers, the Elder would know the scriptures and those conclusions that may be deduced therefrom.  As the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, OR by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”

  So the Elder would not, and could not be one who is emerging, as in the context of one who is still coming out of, or coming to grips with theology flowing from scripture and the repercussions of that theology when interacting with a people and/or information.

This is not to say that an Elder is to be one who has emerged, as such a state is impossible.  However, the definition of an entire entity by a disposition of immaturity, in the context of the Church, is wholly unacceptable and lends itself to a justification of not developing a thoroughly Christian worldview, such God’s creative activity and self revelation are seen as objective in and of themselves, and so have authority derived from God’s attributes to determine how one views society, relationships, things, and ultimately truth.  A church defined by the rejection of this very premise is no church at all, and in the end assessment is in fact actively pursuing rebellion against God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

  1. Burke, John, Mark Driscoll, Dan Kimball, Doug Pagitt, Karen Ward. Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Church: Five Perspectives. Michigan: Zondervan, 2007.
  2. Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology: Revised and Expanded. Illinois: Moody Publishers, 2008.
  3. John S. Hammett, “An Ecclesiological Assessment of the Emerging Church Movement” (paper presented to the Evangelical Theological Society)
  4. Poythress, Vern S. Logic: A God Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought Illinois: Crossway, 2013.
  5. Westminster Confession of Faith. Chapter 1. 1646.
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