Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church

Summary

Are you encountering people who are aversive to stating truth in succinct prepositions? Or individuals who want to share their story as part of God’s larger story, but who are reluctant to embrace clear statements of doctrine? This is a growing trend among evangelicals, especially those influenced by the emerging church movement. From the back cover: “The ‘emerging church’ movement has generated a lot of excitement and exerts astonishingly broad influence. Is it the wave of the future or a passing fancy? Who are the leaders and what are they saying?” D.A. Carson offers his assessment of the strengths and (mainly) weaknesses of this influential movement.

Contents

  • Preface
  • Chapter 1: The Emerging Church Profile
  • Chapter 2: Emerging Church Strengths in Reading the Times
  • Chapter 3: Emerging Church Analysis of Contemporary Culture
  • Chapter 4: Personal Reflections on Postmodernism’s Contributions and Challenges
  • Chapter 5: Emerging Church Critique of Postmodernism
  • Chapter 6: Emerging Church Weaknesses Illustrated in Two Significant Books
  • Chapter 7: Some Biblical Passages to Help Us in Our Evaluation
  • Chapter 8: A Biblical Meditation on Truth and Experience

Preface

This book is based on three Staley Lectures that Carson gave at Cedarville University in February 2004.

The emerging church (EC) movement has gained widespread influence over the last 12 years, but has porous borders and is hard to define.

Reform movements like this shouldn’t be summarily dismissed. They may or may not have something helpful to say.

Chapter 1: The Emerging Church Profile

The term “emergent” is understood to mean many things.

In this book “emergent” is an adjective describing “an important movement that is sweeping across America, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.” (12) People in this movement are aware that cultural changes are bringing forth a new, “emerging” church. Emergent churches are shaking off old forms of thought and modes of expression that hide the gospel.

What characterizes the movement?

  1. Protest in general
    • Read how some individuals have come to participate in this movement in Stories of Emergence: Moving from Absolute to Authentic, edited by Mike Yaconelli.
    • People in this movement are often from traditional (and sometimes fundamentalist) evangelicalism.
    • Their stories often involve a rejection of: the modern-institutional-denominational church, hierarchical leadership, dogmatic doctrinal statements, “spiritual McCarthyism,” mega churches retreating to the suburbs, pastors forcing people to “fall in line,” “‘say-a-prayer-so-that-when-you-die-you-can-go-to-heaven’ reductionism” (22), tying “each passage off neatly into propositional statements that capture the truth” (23), and culturally conservative forms of evangelicalism.
  2. Protest against modernism
    • See the second paragraph on page 27 for a good comparison between modernism and postmodernism (PM).
    • Most of the leaders in the emergent church emphasize their discontinuity vs. continuity with modernism. “For almost everyone within the movement, this works out in an emphasis on feelings and affections over against linear thought and rationality; on experience over against truth; on inclusion over against exclusion; on participation over against individualism and the heroic loner.” “… it means not telling others they are wrong. It underscores the importance of narrative – both life narrative … and in Bible study and preaching.” (29-30)
    • EC leaders like Brian McLaren believe that philosophical pluralism and relativism should temper absolutism, but also claim to want to remain faithful to the Bible. To avoid absolutism and attempt to be faithful to the Bible, McLaren recommends:
      1. Accepting coexistence with other faiths gladly.
      2. Realizing it can’t hurt to listen well to other views.
      3. Believing that dialog takes place in the presence of God, from whom we learn things.
      4. Showing humility and vulnerability, because there is power in weakness.
      5. Witnessing that doesn’t preclude dialogue.
      6. Living with the paradox: we know no way of salvation apart from Jesus Christ, but we do not prejudge what God may do with others. We must simply live with the tension.
      7. Pressing ahead with “reasonable confidence.” (34)
    • Leaders like McLaren dismiss “absolute religious relativism” but fail to offer “a critique of any substantive element of postmodern thought.” (35,36)
    • >> EC writers often concede a point that most evangelicals would affirm (e.g. Christians shouldn’t embrace relativism), but then spend the bulk of their time stating the opposite (e.g. Christian truth really is relative).
  3. Protesting on three fronts.
    • Emergent thinkers are protesting against traditional evangelicalism, modernism, and the seeker-sensitive church.
    • “Post-seeker-sensitive worship” has “more symbolism and a greater stress on the visual. We should have crosses and candles. There might be an entire communion service without a sermon. The entire geography of the room may be different, with the possibility of different groups within the assembly engaging in different things at a time, and perhaps someone going off for a while to quite desk for a bit of journaling. The entire experiences should be multi-sensory…” (37) The sermon no longer takes center stage. “The biblical message is conveyed through a mix of words, visual arts, silence, testimony, and story, and the preacher is a motivator who encourages people to learn fro the Scriptures throughout the week.” (38)
    • Three types of evangelicals:
      • Traditional – modern in their thinking, hymns, pews, appeals to the churched.
      • Progressive – also modern, seeker sensitive, baby-boomer, meeting people at their points of need.
      • Emergent – contemporary in their thinking, worship forms, music, reaching out through authentic relationships. EPIC (experiential, participatory, image-driven, connected).

A key difference between the Protestant Reformation and the emergent protest:

“What drove the Reformation was the conviction, among all its leaders, that the Roman Catholic Church had departed from Scripture and had introduced theology and practices that were inimical to genuine Christian faith.” (42)

BUT “…at the heart of the emerging reformation lies a perception of a major change in culture.” (42)

Has the EC compromised biblical truth to accommodate postmodern culture?

Chapter 2: Emerging Church Strengths in Reading the Times

  1. The emerging church movement honestly tries to read the culture in which we find ourselves and think through the implications of changes in the culture for our witness.
  2. Their emphasis on authentic Christian faith, authentic spirituality, authentic Christian obedience is commendable.
  3. They properly recognize how deeply our own perception is influenced by the rapidly changed culture we live in.
  4. Their passion to reach people who are often overlooked by the church is also good.
  5. “There is something very refreshing, on the one hand, about not being bound by tradition… and, on the other, about wanting to be linked to historic Christianity and not merely to the last twenty years of Christianity.” (55)

We can enjoy many of these same strengths in our local churches AND avoid many of the weakness associated with the EC.

Chapter 3: Emerging Church Analysis of Contemporary Culture

The weaknesses in the emerging church’s analysis of culture can be summarized as:

  1. A reductionistic and wooden understanding of modernism
  2. Condemning confessional Christianity[1]
  3. Theological shallowness and intellectual incoherence

1. A reductionistic and wooden understanding of modernism

This reductionistic understanding is extended into a caricature of modern confessional Christianity. Churches and individuals in the modern era are not and have not been as dead, soulless, and confining as they are depicted to be in emergent caricatures (rationalistic, cerebral, and unemotional).

2. Condemning confessional Christianity

Propositions and statements of truth are seen as “abstractions” which are part of “systems” – two words with negative connotations. Instead of propositions, EC writers argue we need to emphasize stories, poetry, proverbs and mystery.

Reluctant and vague concessions are made for the need for creeds. But “the balance is always cast with the apparent concessions running only one way. One never stumbles across passages that say, in effect, that human beings shall not live by stories and poetry and proverbs and mystery alone, but also by revealed truths that are to be believed, trusted, understood, and obeyed…” (65)

“…in the emerging church literature, the place of words or Scripture or propositions is at best concessively admitted, while almost all the emphasis is on Christ as the Word incarnate.” (65)

It’s hard to find an emergent writer saying anything positive about modernism or negative about postmodernism.

Recent progress in biblical theology has corrected an overemphasis on didactic scriptures vs. narrative ones.

3. Theological shallowness and intellectual incoherence

Shallow because…

  • Emergent writers overlook the fact that no philosophical system in a fallen world is entirely good or bad.
  • Postmodernism and modernism are both deeply flawed yet contain some truth.

Inconsistent because the emergent church…

  • …is “quasi-absolutist” in its condemnation of modernism. (69)
  • …has embraced a more recent view of tolerance. Tolerance used to be respectfully disagreeing with someone’s position. By definition, you have to disagree with something to tolerate it. Tolerance now means refusing to say that any opinion is bad, evil or stupid.
  • But by this later definition, how can you claim to tolerate something that you refuse to express disagreement with? In what sense is that tolerance? Doesn’t toleration require disagreement?

In addition, while tolerant of all other “isms” (Confucianism, Buddhism, etc.), they are intolerant (by their own definition) of modernism.

A word on tradition

“The frequent appeal to tradition in postmodern thought, including the emerging church movement, is invariably an appeal to an older tradition or another tradition or an unfamiliar tradition or an eclectic tradition – anything but recent tradition, precisely because the agenda is the ‘critical uprooting of all received traditions.’” (70)

A Particularization of the first three criticisms

Emergent writers blame many evils on absolutism, which they say grew out of quest for certain knowledge born out of the enlightenment.
Carson’s response: Maybe it was the pursuit of freedom and drive for autonomy (from God) that lies behind the destructive effects of modernism.

Postmodern thinkers see all actions motivated by absolutism as being equally evil.
Carson’s response: That’s too reductionistic. Britain’s absolutist stance against slavery (motivated by Christians like Wilberforce) ended transatlantic slave trade. Equating this to the effects of Hitler’s absolutism is absurd.

Emergent writers often say outrageous cruelty and evil find their source in modernism.
Carson’s response: The Premodern era was just as wicked. “We have our Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot; they have their Genghis Kahn and Nero and Antiochus IV Epiphanes. (72)

Some good things have come out of modernism: modern medicine, hygiene, rapid transportation, improved communication, etc.

Doesn’t the human lust for autonomy and independence manifest itself in EVERY human ideology, including modernism and postmodernism?

Writers like Brian McLaren tend to lump all forms of Christianity together without recognizing important distinctions. Can we compare the conquests of Pizarro to the work of William Carey, Jonathan Edward’s defense of the Indians or missionaries entering into Africa with the gospel despite the high mortality rate?

A critique of the emerging church’s understanding of postmodernism

>> Carson gives a good summary of the recent shift in our culture:

“The last few decades have witnessed a substantial shift in Western culture’s approach to truth and our perceived ability to know truth. This had been accompanied by a decline in absolutism, and increase in perspectivalism (the view that all claims to truth are finally no more than different perspective), a decreased confidence in reason and the possibility of knowing any objective reality, and an increased emphasis on other virtues such as relationships, affective responses, and the importance of community and therefore of tradition.” (75)

  1. They appeal to postmodernism as a cool “buzz word” in order to be “with it”
  2. They lump all social change under the rubric of postmodernism.
  3. Far from being “cutting edge,” in many circles, especially in academic circles, the subject is becoming passé.
    “…a movement that was on the cusp of intellectual endeavor half a century ago, and popular in Europe four decades ago, and made popular on university campuses here a quarter century ago, is now the darling of popular evangelical writers trying to sound prophetic.” (83)

Proclaiming authenticity

The hype that we’re about to enter a golden era of authenticity is hard to swallow.

Emergent church writers tend to make absolutist statements

“…the rhetoric of these discussions is almost always over the top: the church must adapt to the postmodern world or it will die; unless we get on board with the direction of the emerging church movement, we are probably out-of-date modernists and absolutists to boot – all set forth in absolutist terms.” (84)

The movement sees things in very black and white terms.

They are very modernist in their defense of postmodern approaches.

Re. the leaders in the emergent church: “One of the striking commonalities among them is the high number of them who come from intensely conservative or even fundamentalist backgrounds… from a tradition that is substantially separated from the culture.” (85)

They may be mistakenly assuming that most evangelical churches are just like the very rigid churches that they came from. In addition, their own narrow backgrounds may lead them to express themselves in such a dogmatic way.

Chapter 4: Personal Reflections on Postmodernism’s Contributions and Challenges

Postmodernism has made contributions that need to be considered, but the emerging church’s response to postmodernism “is not as penetrating or biblically faithful as it needs to be.”

A survey of pre-modern, modern and post-modern epistemology:

Name Pre-Modern Modern Postmodern (PM)
Time Period Pre-Enlightenment Enlightenment
Beginning of 17th century until a few decades ago
Descartes (1596-1650)
Mid-late 20th Century to present.
Philosophical Roots Judeo-Christian Descartes was a Christian, but over time, modernists tended to adopt philosophical naturalism – the view that matter, time, and space are all that is.
Popular in the west
Started out in philosophy; just now being embraced by the church.
European origins.
Where Knowledge Begins Human knowing starts with God; it depends on divine revelation.
God’s existence is a given, although defenses of the existence of God were devised in the Pre-Modern era.
Knowledge begins with “I.”
We are not dependent on God for knowing.
Personal existence is a given.
Knowledge begins with “I,” but each “I” is different.
Personal subjectivity is a given.
Path to Knowing Human knowing is a subset of God’s knowledge.
A very “open” universe where God’s activity is seen everywhere. This, in turn, plays down an awareness of cause and effect processes and heightens superstition, magic, and fear.
Knowledge is attained by reasoning from the reality of one’s own existence.
Foundationalism and Reason – Descartes sought to define common foundation that could be the basis for all human knowing. From this foundation, the inquirer after knowledge adds carefully controlled rigorous methods and turns crank (employs logic and reasoning) to produce truth.
Holds that those who inquire after knowledge choose a variety of methods based on different assumptions and arrive at varying results.
Therefore holds that objective knowledge is neither attainable nor desirable…  because certainty breeds absolutism which controls and dominates people.
Emphases and Convictions Absolutist and resistant to assimilation by other belief systems.
Not all absolutism is bad. It just depends on what you’re being an absolutist about.
Rarely doubted that epistemological certainty is desirable and attainable.
We can know truly, but not exhaustively.
What is true is universally true.
Greater emphasis on the individual.
Profoundly suspicious of all foundationalism.
Claims to timeless truth (a.k.a. “ahistorical universality”) are impossible.
Less emphasis on the individual and more on the cultural group.

Five Correlatives (things that PM strengthens and that are strengthened by PM)

  1. Syncretism (picking and choosing aspects of various religions to create your own belief system).
  2. Secularization. PM marginalizes religions because their truth claims don’t matter – they don’t merit serious debate as to whether not they are true.
  3. Biblical illiteracy. Because the Bible is not seen as authoritative revelation, there is less incentive to read it.
  4. Ill-defined spirituality: A must because PM rejects religions that make specific truth claims.
  5. Globalization: The reality of global diversity makes it hard to uncritically accept anything in one’s own culture.

Five entailments (things that PM leads to)

  1. Questioning claims to objective morality.
  2. Evangelism being seen as intrinsically obnoxious. Christians often accommodate by refusing to witness and instead living out their Christian life and hoping someone will ask them about it. When they share how God worked for them, the listener may choose to believe as well, but not necessarily because it is objectively true. But rather because it seems attractive.
  3. An aversion to reaching people through careful arguments (thus the aversion to apologetics).
  4. Happiness to share personal narrative but avoiding sharing a metanarrative (a big story that claims to explain truths about life that apply to everyone).
  5. Suspecting the claims of science because it is a social construction.

The strengths of PM epistemology

  1. It has effectively exposed the weaknesses and pretensions of many strands of modernism.
  2. Open to thinking about nonlinear and methodologically unrigorous factors in human knowing.
  3. Sensitive to the diversity of cultures in the world.
  4. Correctly appreciates that we are “finite knowers.” Carson adds, “We get things wrong not only because we are not omniscient, but also because we are corrupt, morally blind, painfully selfish, and given to excuses and self-justification.” (104)

Weaknesses of PM epistemology

  1. It subscribes to a manipulative antithesis: either humans can know exhaustively, fully, perfectly or we can glimpse a small “part” from our limited perspective without any mechanism for understanding this “part” in relation to the whole.
    • e.g. Either we can understand Paul’s letter to the Romans omnisciently or we can’t really understand it at all, except from our own subjective perspective.
    • Are there ways that finite beings can know something objective?
      1. Hard/strong PM – humans cannot have objective knowledge.
      2. Soft/weak PM – human knowledge is necessarily perspectival (limited to a particular perspective), but we can approach the truth in some objective sense. We can know some truth things, but not exhaustively.
  2. It does not concede that, “however great the difficulties in knowing things and in communicating things with other human beings, a great deal of knowing and effective communication do take place.” (106)
    • Hard PM philosophers of science attribute the “discovery” of new insights to the social ambition/vision of the scientists themselves (e.g. German rejection of a mechanistic worldview and interest in mysticism led to quantum mechanics). Carson counters that new insights are “often triggered by the genuine advance of collection of new data that forces recognition that the old explanatory theory has defects. When the damning data are sufficiently telling, the old theory is waiting to be replaced by a better theory that can explain the more recent and comprehensive data.” (109)
    • Meanwhile, as hard PMs assert that all knowledge is the product of social construction, they are at the same time convinced that their own sociological analysis is the truth!
    • Experience shows that scientific knowledge is advancing in its correspondence with reality and yet is not exhaustive or omniscient.
    • “Critical realism” is the idea that meaning can be adequately determined. Critical realists would assert that scientific advances are approximating an objective world that exists apart from any scientific descriptions of it (realist) but that this knowledge must be constantly probed, improved, and critiqued (critical).
    • The truth is, we can know some things certainly (e.g. Carson was in the Czech republic last year), even if we can’t know them exhaustively.
  3. In its hard/strong form, it argues that distinctions between right and wrong have no absolute status.
    1. For sensitive people, this is a bankrupt and offensive point of view. (>> e.g. Is it not always wrong everywhere to torture a child in front of his/her parents?)
    2. No one can live consistently with the conclusion that absolute morals are impossible. Even hard PMs express moral outrage over the rights of homosexuals, genocide in Darfur, etc. –  even when these outrages occur in different cultures.
    3. This view has justified the pursuit of immediate personal pleasure in our youth and we can all see the destructive effects.
    4. PM itself must be preserved as right in order to obliterate the distinction between right and wrong.
  4. It is absurd: “the more it insists that all theoretical stances are social constructions and that no theoretical construction bears any necessary relation to objective truth, the more it undermines the truthfulness of its own construction.” (115)
  5. It is arrogant: “neither the absurdity of its dogmatic epistemology nor the implications of genuine advances in knowledge will compel the strong postmodernists to modify their position.” (115)

Carson’s view

“I hold it is possible and reasonable to speak of finite human beings knowing some things truly, even if nothing exhaustively or omnisciently.” (116)

An example: “It is surprising how much agreement can be reached by readers from very different backgrounds as to what the apostle Paul actually says in his letter to the Romans.” (117)

Carson gives some helpful analogies to explain how humans, despite their limited knowledge, can closely approximate objective reality and be certain about some truths. See the “hermeneutical spiral” (118-119); the asymptote (119-120); the writings of Paul Ricoeur (120).

Modernism and PM both share a fundamental weakness: they both begin with the “I.”

  • This is methodological atheism. It takes no account of God at the beginning of its deliberations.
  • “An omniscient, talking God changes everything. It does not change the fact that I will always be finite and that my knowledge of him and about him will always be partial. But once I know that he exists, that he is the Creator and my Savior and Judge, it is improper, even idolatrous, to try to think of my knowing things without reference to him.” (123)
  • We come to know God through his own self-disclosure.
  • So the starting point of modernism and PM is fundamentally mistaken.

Chapter 5: Emerging Church Critique of Postmodernism

Carson says the emergent church fails to offer a penetrating criticism of postmodernism. Emergent thinkers….

  1. … fail to come to terms with the importance of non-omniscient truth claims.
    • Writers like Sweet and McLaren warn against absolutizing postmodernism, but never provide specific ways Christians should expose or confront PM.
    • They are “remarkably averse to trading in the coinage of truth.” (128)
    • Words become “servants of mystery” that cannot capture truth precisely. (129)
    • They buy into the absolute antithesis: either we can know God exhaustively or we are restricted to the mysterious.
    • God has revealed us to himself not exhaustively, but truly.
    • “While formally repudiating the hard forms of postmodernism, when it comes to their actual arguments they either cave in to these hard forms or, to say the least, never provide any hint of how Christians informed by postmodern insights can speak about truth in the ways that Scripture does.” (132)
  2. … fail to face the tough questions, especially if they are truth related.
    Examples:
    • Stanley Grenz: Don’t ask “which religion is true?” Rather ask, “What end is ultimate, even if many are real?” “Which religious vision carries within itself the foundation for the community-building role of a transcendent religions vision.” (132)
      Carson’s response: No criteria is provided for deciding which religious vision is best.
    • Brian McLaren: “I believe (Jesus) comes today not to destroy or condemn anything (anything but evil) but to redeem and save everything that can be redeemed or saved.” (133) He weakly holds that it matters which mission (belief system) we embrace but says, “The church must present the Christian faith not as one religious army fighting against evil, falsehood, destruction, darkness, and justice.” (134)
      Carson’s response: The Bible never describes other religions in this way.
    • Brian McLaren: Since Christians have committed their own share of evils they are to pronounce on the evils of other religions.
      Carson’s response: The actions of adherents have nothing to do with the question of whether the truth claims made by the various religions are valid.
    • Brian McLaren: Differences in religion are “additive” they expand or add to our understanding of spirituality.
      Carson: Nothing is provided to resolve flat contradictions between religions. Adherents of other religions recognize these real differences and would not want their own beliefs conflated with other religious systems.
  3. … fail to use scripture as the norming norm over against an eclectic appeal to tradition.
    • The EC often rejects the current received “t”radition (practices in the church today) while encouraging people to draw practices from the whole “T”radition (all of the traditions carried out in the church down through the centuries). This leaves them free to pick and choose parts of various traditions they like. They point out that we all think out of a tradition anyhow and by embracing the whole tradition, we are rightly seeing ourselves as part of a community of tradition instead of just as individuals.
    • Carson’s critique:
      1. EC leaders create their own a la carte tradition and fail to embrace any long-standing living tradition.
      2. When some of the “t”raditions within the “T”radition flatly contradict each other (and many do), what then? EC leaders say Scripture is above tradition but never explain why.
      3. Are the traditions true? Are they a reflection of what really exists? “We aren’t saved by ideas in the text [or in tradition] but by those things to which the text bears witness. The text has ‘extra-textual referentiality’ – i.e. it refers to things outside the world of the text itself – and those extra-textual realities are what save us.” (143)
        “The suggestion… that we must simply return to living within the narrative, while refusing to consider, once those doubts have been raised, whether this narrative is telling the truth is myopic counsel. It is the counsel of those who think we are transformed by ideas about God and what God does in history, not by God and what he does in history.” (144)
        Why should we live out a tradition? “Christian traditions are attempts to work out a biblical understanding, but at the end of the day they must themselves be revisable in the light of scripture…” (145)
  4. … fail to handle “becoming” and “belonging” tensions in a biblically faithful way.
    • Emergent writers prioritize “belonging” to the Christian community over “becoming” a Christian.
    • Instead of insisting someone become a Christian so that they can belong, they emphasize inviting someone to be part of your story (or the story of your local Christian community) in hopes that “becoming” will follow.
    • Carson sees the need for Christians to be engaged in the world – Christians must develop and maintain meaningful contacts with non-Christians. But there are reasons we should reject prioritization of belonging over becoming…
      1. The NT talks extensively about the importance of becoming, not just belonging. People are described as either being “in” or “out” of God’s distinctive community.
        • See examples of people being “in” and “out” of God’s community 1 Cor. 6:9-11, Eph. 2:1-3,19-20; Rev. 21:6-8.
        • See the NT teaching on church discipline: Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 10-13; etc.
      2. The NT excludes non-Christians from taking communion.
      3. The NT has an enormous emphasis on teaching. NT writers demand that we distinguish between those who adhere to the truth and those who don’t.
        • “The tendency of emergent writers, whenever a truth question comes up, is to move away from the content of scripture and to Jesus as the personal Word of God (John 1:1), as the personal truth of God (John 14:6). The presentation of Jesus as the truth incarnate, as the Word of God, is critically important, and certainly something to rejoice over – but it is a relatively rare theme compared with the biblical emphasis on the truthfulness of God’s words when he speaks.” (149)
        • “Christianity’s focus on preaching and teaching and discussion, on words and hearing and persuasion, was viewed as so extraordinary by outsiders that in their view Christianity was more a philosophical movement than a traditional religion. This is also why creeds became so important in the early church.” (150)
        • These creeds are primarily concerned with questions of truth, coherence with scripture, and what is right and wrong.
        • Philip Crowe says Christians should “abandon false certainties and live by faith alone.” (151) But biblical faith is tied to the existence of and belief in objective realities. Questions about who is and is not a Christian focus on whether or not people adhere to the truth.
      4. EC writers claim to emphasize “belonging” and eschew sectarianism, but Carson predicts that “sectarianism will be the bitter fruit where the most prominent emerging leaders caricature evangelical convictions about substitutionary atonement as ‘a form of cosmic child abuse…’” (155) That kind of language will leave many “outside” of the EC movement.
    • How do we balance these two biblical mandates?
      1. Warmly interact with non-Christians (belonging).
      2. Distinguish, on doctrinal, ethical, and moral grounds, between who is and isn’t a Christian (becoming).
        See Carson’s excellent vision for a church that satisfies both of these criteria on p. 152-153.
  5. … fail to handle facts, both exegetical and historical, in a responsible way.
    Carson is frustrated with the loose and often unfaithful way EC writers cite their sources: “the pattern of distortion is so persistent that after a while it becomes painful to read them.” (156)

Chapter 6: Emerging Church Weaknesses Illustrated in Two Significant Books

A Generous Orthodoxy, by Brian McLaren (a preeminent EC writer in the U.S.).

The Lost Message of Jesus, by Steve Chalke (an EC leader in Great Britain).

An examination of both books reveals a distortion in facts, evidence, arguments, and scripture that is typical of EC writing.

A Critique of A Generous Orthodoxy

McLaren repeatedly paints all of evangelicalism with the narrowness of the most conservative twig of the most conservative branches of the church. This probably comes from his background in a very conservative church.

In his chapter on “The Seven Jesuses I Have Known,” McLaren fails to evaluate the extent to which each view of Jesus corresponds to scripture.

McLaren claims to be an evangelical, but for him that means something “beyond a belief system or doctrinal array or even a practice.” (162-163) But most evangelicals define their faith by particular beliefs, doctrines, and practices.

McLaren claims to be biblical, but his emphasis on reading the Bible as narrative avoids any suggestion that biblical fidelity might be tied to questions of truth.

Carson warns, “…the Bible includes a lot of things in addition to narrative, or things embedded in narrative, or sometimes things that embed narrative: Law, lament, instruction, wisdom, ethical injunction, warning, apocalyptic imagery, letters, promise, reports, propositions, ritual, and more. The easy appeal to the overarching narrative proves immensely distortive.” (164)

>> EC writers often draw on the works of N.T. Wright to support their overemphasis on narrative.

McLaren never attempts “to ground his treatment of the theories of the atonement in the Bible, and… he invariably takes the time to take cheap shots at substitution and other elements taught in scripture.” (168) >>In the books I’ve read, substitutionary atonement is the view of the cross that emergent writers are most hostile to.

McLaren backpedals from a traditional understanding of hell – “he is not faithful to the nature of the judgment from which we must be saved.” (169)

McLaren skirts what scripture says about controversial ethical issues like homosexuality.[2]

McLaren blurs real distinctions in questions of doctrine and practice between Catholics and Protestants. The Reformation was not just a reaction to corrupt religious practices. It involved fidelity to scripture and debates over mutually exclusive truth claims.

McLaren skirts the fact that in the NT, some doctrinal issues matter (see Acts 15, Galatians 2, 1 John). In Generous Orthodoxy, “the doctrinal issues, the truth issues, are simply not brought up and examined.” (177)

McLaren’s fundamentalism, which “boils down to” Mark 12:28-34 (love God and love your neighbor), is grossly oversimplified and “overlooks central themes of the canonical gospels and, indeed, the entire New Testament.” (178)

In later books, McLaren is ambiguous about key doctrines:

  • He fails to tie the theme of judgment to the cross in a biblically faithful way.
  • He muddles salvation by grace through faith (which he affirms in earlier books) by saying that final judgment will depend on “how well individuals have lived up to God’s hopes and dreams for our world and for life in it.” (181)
  • He describes Satan not as God’s personal adversary, but as “a horribly real metaphor for a terribly real force in the universe.” (182)

A critique of The Lost Message of Jesus

The title itself suggests that others have heard Jesus wrong and that Chalke is going to tell us how to get it right. >> That doesn’t sound like postmodern toleration to me!

The book emphasizes the message that “God is love” and that Christians should accept the unaccepted, love the marginalized, forgive the unforgivable, etc. But he emphasizes God’s love at the expense of his other attributes and in ways that undermine important doctrines.

Chalke on God’s holiness: Holiness is “expressed in God’s pain as he gazes out on a broken world.” (183) Compare to God’s expression of his holiness as anger against sin in Ex. 32:10! >> Or compare to C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia: "Of course he's not safe. He's not a tame lion. But he's good."

Chalke on Sin: We must assert man’s original (pre-fall) goodness. Man is not beyond the pale. Compare with Jesus in Mark 7:21-23 and Paul in Romans 3:9-20.

Chalke on the cross: “The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement ‘God is love.’ If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil.” (185) Compare with Isaiah 53:3-5. Carson reacts: “that which lies at the heart of Christian confessionalism is now ‘a form of cosmic child abuse.’… no one who has sympathetically worked through what the Bible actually says about the death of Christ could deploy such condescension… (185) Rightly understood, God’s love is all the more deeply cherished when the nature of Christ’s sin-bearing act on the cross is understood in biblical terms.” (186) >> McLaren also uses the phrase “cosmic child abuse.”

Chalke on repentance: “It no longer has to do with renouncing evil. The call to repentance is the call to fulfill our natural potential, to improve ourselves by acting like God. >> Chalke’s theological rationale for moving repentance away from a sin problem is directly influenced by N.T. Wright’s discussion of repentance in his book, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is. Wright heartily endorses The Lost Message of Jesus on the back cover.

Why won’t someone in the emergent church movement call McLaren and Chalke to account for abandoning what the Bible says about the cross? Maybe because that involves truth claims…

Chapter 7: Some Biblical Passages to Help Us in Our Evaluation

The verses in the tables below reflect how the Bible speaks about truth. These passages read very differently than the way many emergent authors speak about the truth.

Can we know the truth and communicate it to others?

Passage Implication
Psalm 25:4 Truth from God can be understood.
Proverbs 22:20-21 One person can pass on truth to someone else, who can, in turn, teach the same truth to others.
John 4:37; John 16:7 Some propositions can be accepted as true.
John 8:40 Truth received from God can be communicated to others.
Proverbs 12:17; Acts 26:25; 1 Tim. 2:7 People can use words to construct a description that corresponds to what objectively exists or happened.
Romans 1:18-19; 2 Timothy 4:3-5 Humans tend to suppress the truth.
Romans 2:8; 2 Thes. 2:13; 1 Tim. 2:3-4; Hebrews 10:26 Our eternal state depends, in part, on how we respond to truth claims.
Galatians 2:14 We can recognize when someone is saying or doing something that diverges from the truth.
2 Tim. 2:25-26 Sin distorts our ability to understand the truth. Repenting of sin makes it easier to understand the truth.
2 Tim. 3:7 Always being on the journey towards truth but never arriving is a bad thing.
1 John 2:21-22 A statement that contradicts a true proposition can be identified as false.

“People can tell the truth… of course this doesn’t mean they can speak all the truth that omniscience could speak on any subject; it does mean that finite individuals can say something that conforms to the objective reality and that this can be believed and known by other finite knowers. The Gospel itself can be articulated in words… it is true good news that can be believed and known.” (192) The Gospel can also be obeyed and defended.

We can know truly even if we can’t know omnisciently.

Can we know some truths with certainty?

Passage Implication
Genesis 15:8-10; Romans 8:28; 2 Corinthians 5:1; 1 John 5:13,15 We can know that God’s promises to us will come true and that he will act in certain ways.
Genesis 31:6; Joshua 4:21-22; Luke 1:3-4 People can have certain knowledge about past events, characteristics of people, and other aspects of the world around them. This information can be communicated to others.
Numbers 16:28-20; Zechariah 2:11; cf. 4:9 We can know for certain that God has spoken through/sent an individual.
Deuteronomy 4:39; Isaiah 49:26; 1 Peter 1:18-19 We can know certain truths about what God is like and how he has acted.
Deuteronomy 31:29; Daniel 2:45; 7:19; 9:25; Ephesians 5:5 God reveals certain knowledge about future events to some people that others can understand.
Matthew 22:29 We need to know truth about God AND experience his power.
1 Corinthians 8:2 After we’ve been a Christian for a while, there are things we should know.

After reading these passages a few times, it is easy to see what has gone wrong with both the epistemology and the theology of postmodernism and the emergent church. Humans can know some truths certainly and share those truths with others.

On knowing enough to call religions idolatrous:

  • Why is the EC reluctant to say anything adverse about other religions? It may be due to…
    1. … a desire to not needlessly offend those who see criticism of another religion as “impregnable intolerance.” (200)
    2. … a sense that there are many good things in other religions that Christians would benefit from.
    3. … PM fears about the dangers of absolutism.
    4. … a sense that Christianity has as many horror stories as the other religions.
  • Carson doesn’t see the same reluctance in the Bible. “There is one dominant way in which the Bible describes those who follow other gods, and on this point the writers of the emergent movement with whom I am familiar seem to be strangely silent. The Bible tends to call people idolaters and their gods idols.” (201) >> See this same page for scores of supporting references.
  • EC writers: All Christians slip into idolatry at some point. Who are we to call someone else an idolater?
    Carson’s response: There is a profound difference between embracing an entire religious system that is idolatrous and being a Christian who lapses into idolatry (being consumed by a life-controlling passion like sports, motorcycles, etc.).

Brief comments on 10 texts

  • Romans 1:18-3:20
    • Paul says Gentiles are not good enough to please God and so be saved. Instead, all human beings wickedly suppress the truth about God and deny their creatureliness. God will respond to wickedness with wrath. After people die, they will face judgment.
    • EC writers are uncomfortable mentioning sin, transgression, evil, and idolatry.
  • Romans 3:21-4:25
    • God rightly confronts our sin because of his justice, but nevertheless meets us in grace by delivering his son over to death. “God justifies the ungodly.” (Rom. 4:5)
    • EC writers handle the cross in a “cavalier” manner and ignore many of these central themes. (206)
  • John 3:1-21; John 4:1-42; and similar passages
    • The way Jesus handles a wide range of people is amazing to watch. But along with his penetrating discernment and compassion, he also confronts them when necessary.
      • With Nicodemus: “you’re a teacher and you don’t understand these things?”
      • With the Samaritan woman: not allowing her to duck her sexual promiscuity.
    • Paul insists that certain rebellious people must be commanded not to teach false doctrine (Titus 1). See Jude for another example.
    • There are also numerous moral commands, injunctions to preach and teach, pleas to link conduct with sound doctrine and warnings against false teaching.
    • Unlike the EC, in the early church, every opinion did not carry the same weight.
  • Galatians 1:8-9 and similar passages
    • When it comes to whether or not people can fully rely on grace to be saved, “not even apostolic status, not even angelic existence, stands above the immutable gospel.” (208)
    • Paul calls those who tie Jesus up with triumphalism and power imposters. See 2 Corinthians 11:12-13.
    • None of this sounds like the “generous orthodoxy” promoted in the EC, which makes one wonder, when does “generous orthodoxy” become heterodoxy?
    • “One can be biblically unfaithful by being much narrower than scripture; one can be biblically unfaithful by being much broader than scripture. Both sides call it faithfulness; both sides are seriously mistaken.” (208)
  • Jesus’ parables of warning
    • Some of Jesus’ parables have an unmistakable element of warning. Don’t forget about the seed falling on unproductive soil or the fish that are thrown away in Jesus’ kingdom parables (Matthew 13), the virgins who are shut outside of the banquet (Matt. 24:51), the goats who are separated from the sheep (Matt. 25:31-46). Jesus ministry had a dividing effect.
    • But the EC is unwilling to pronounce condemnation on any position or stance or habit of life.
  • Revelation 14:6-20
    • This passage narrates God pouring out his breathtaking wrath on the wicked – people who follow the beast instead of the lamb… “the smoke of their torment will rise forever.” (Revelation 14:11)
    • Is the EC willing to affirm and submit to clear teachings in the Bible that they are uncomfortable with?
  • 1-2 Corinthians
    • Carson: “On some issues, the correct approach, the right answer, the wise pastoral stance is to move the extremes to the mature and nuanced center.” (212)
      • e.g. YES it is good for a man to be single, BUT sex within marriage reduces immorality.
      • e.g. YES you are free to eat anything, including meat sacrificed to idols, BUT if it stumbles a brother you are sinning.
      • e.g. YES tongues are a valid gift, BUT I would rather edify the church with a prophecy.
    • “But on some issues, the correct approach, the right answer, the wise pastoral stance is to draw a line in the sand and say, in unbending fashion, ‘this belief does not belong here; this practice does not belong here. It must be removed; it is not Christian.” (212)
      • e.g. NO, it is not acceptable to sleep with your father’s wife (1 Cor. 5).
      • e.g. NO, those who preach another Jesus are ‘false apostles’ (2 Cor. 11).
    • When do we see the EC taking this latter approach?
  • Isaiah 6; John 8; 2 Thessalonians 2; and related passages
    • God tells Isaiah, Jesus tells the apostles and Paul predicts in the future that preaching the truth will repel some people. Nevertheless, “we cannot stop talking about the truth without abandoning Scripture or the gospel or the exemplary significance of OT prophets and of the Lord Jesus himself… yet how many emerging leaders want us to stop talking about the truth?” (214)
  • John 20:29
    • “Then Jesus told him, ‘because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”
    • Jesus isn’t blessing those who believe without having objective evidence like Thomas. The rest of the NT provides a credible historical witness of the resurrection that readers “may believe that Jesus is the Messiah.” (John 20:30,31).
    • So, unlike the EC, here we see an emphasis on “the historical nature of the truth, the need for reliable witness to that truth and for faithful recording of that truth in written form.” (215)
  • 1 Corinthians 15
    What happens if Jesus did not actually rise from the dead?
    1. The apostles and first generation of believers were either deluded or lying.
    2. The heart of the Christian message is false and useless.
    3. We remain in our sins.
    4. Faith in Christ is worthless because its object is false.
      (This is very different than the way we use faith today.)
    5. Maintaining such a faith is pitiable.
      “Paul has no conceptual space for the stance that doesn’t care if faith’s object is true so long as we find it beneficial in some way.” (216)

C. K. Chesterton: “What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition… [and] settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” (217)

Chapter 8: A Biblical Meditation on Truth and Experience

“…truth and experience do not have exactly the same sort of footing. Truth itself, rightly understood, may correct experience, but not the other way around. On the other hand, experience may prompt our previous understanding of the truth.” (219)

Truth and experience are both important, as seen in 2 Peter 1:

  • Experience
    • 1:1-2
      • God can extend mercy to us because he has provided Jesus, the righteous one, as a propitiation for our sin (see also 1 John 2:1-2).
      • Jesus is God and he is righteous, making it impossible for us to get away with unrighteousness.
      • The faith of Peter’s readers involves the subjective act of believing and the substance of what they believed.
    • 1:3-4
      The reality of our experience is grounded in God’s transforming power.
    • 1:5-8
      The reality of our experience is attested by spiritual growth and productivity.
    • 1:9-11
      The reality of our experience is attested by our unflagging perseverance.
  • Truth
    • 1:12-15
      • Our confidence in the truth is stabilized by constant review.
      • Peter is intent on reminding his readers of the truth (v. 12) and making sure they continue to be reminded after he is gone (v. 15).
      • Important things need to be repeated.
      • There is content about God that “we may substantially know and are committed to repeating.
    • 1:16-18
      Our confidence in the truth is established on historical witness. Peter was an eyewitness to the message he preached. What he teaches is faithful to what really happened. “The reason he wants people to believe certain things and act in certain ways is not simply because they are part of a confessional community or because it is good for them or because this happens to be their particular heritage of spirituality, but because this is the truth.” (232)
    • 1:19-21
      • Our confidence in the truth is grounded in biblical revelation.
      • Peter saw the message of the prophets as completely reliable.

“So which shall we choose? Experience or truth? The left wing of an airplane, or the right? Love or integrity? Study or service? Evangelism or discipleship? The front wheels of a car, or the rear? Subjective knowledge or objective knowledge? Faith or obedience? Damn all false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, the perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ.” (234)

EC leaders must “embrace all the categories of the Scriptures, with the Scripture’s balance and cohesion – including, as we saw in the previous chapter, what the Bible says about truth, human knowing, and related matters.” (234)