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The Emergent Church

Recently D.A. Carson, a respected evangelical scholar from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School released a book entitled “Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church”.  This book was highlighted on my home Presbytery’s website’s forums.  It was linked to this article.  So in many ways, this post a response to that article as well as an expansion of what I posted on my Presbytery’s website.  I have not read Carson’s assessment of the Emerging Church, but in my recent discovery of the Emerging Church, I’ve finally corrected one of my long time misconceptions, and one that I think a lot of people make.

But first some background.  My introduction to the Emerging Church began really in September when Renee and I started dating.  She has attended Cedar Ridge Community Church.  When she first described the Emerging church to me it sounded an awful lot like the Social Gospel movement of the 1960’s, a movement which wasn’t without merit (certainly a great deal of good came out of it) but ultimately fell on hard times.  Then to me it sounded like a dumbing down of Christianity, where doctrines of more depth (such as Eschatology or the Lord’s Supper) are ignored in favor of stressing unity and simplicity.  This too I had seen before in my studies of church history and ultimately, over time, questions arose that led to schism, etc.  I then caught an article in Christianity Today (which I cannot find for the life of me) that brought some of these concerns to light.  I also began reading a book for one of my classes, Postmodern Youth Ministry, by Tony Jones.  Tony is now the national coordinator for Emergent (www.emergentvillage.org) and a long time youth worker.  I absolutely loved Tony’s book and still believe it is the best introduction to Youth Ministry I’ve ever read.  (I should note that I have talked to many of my classmates who don’t agree with this assessment, but its my opinion and I’m sticking to it)

So, for the past few months I’ve been trying to figure out what it means to be emergent, who is emergent, and ultimately does it matter.  Well, the truth is I have no answers, but I’m closer than where I thought I was.  A few observations…

One, some of the things that are being said are just not true, as is usually the case with generalizations.  For example, in the article on banneroftruth linked above, it says that people in the Emergent church believe that the creeds and liturgies of yesterday must be abandoned.  Um, not to my knowledge.  In his book, Tony Jones outlines his curriculum for confirmation class, which is solidly based in the historic ecumenical church.  Also, in attending Cedar Ridge with Renee, they consistently use classic elements, including a prayer of confession and call to worship.  While they may be some within the emergent church who say that the traditional liturgies and creeds must go, to say that it is advocated for across the board is a gross generalization and demonstrates one’s lack of knowledge.  

Above and beyond that, all my initial conceptions of “emergent” were wrong.  Brian McLaren, who is the unofficial spokesperson for the Emerging Church, is an excellent preacher, as I’ve had the privilege of hearing him preach when I’ve visited Renee.  However, Brian McLaren is not a systematic theologian in any sense of the term.  This is not a criticism of him in the least, most of us, most pastors in fact are not systematic theologians as typically defined.  (I am thinking of the likes of George Hunsinger, Bruce McCormack, William Abraham, Alan Torrance, Mark Achtemier, Jurgen Moltmann, etc.)  However, too many critics of Emergent, especially in academic circles are looking to McLaren and trying to put his work to the test of a full length systematic theology, which it isn’t and he never intended it to be.  His intended audience is not academic types: he’s trying to appeal in many ways to those outside of traditional Christian circles.  The truth of the matter is, Brian McLaren probably enjoys reading and writing in-depth systematic theology less than I do and you know what, there’s nothing wrong with that.       

The second thing that has become most apparent to me is that there are others out there affiliated with Emergent who are capable of and are producing the type of in-depth rigorous theological reflection that academic types such as myself are looking for.  Lately I’ve discovered the work of John Franke, and he is one of these people.  

In his article Reforming Theology: Toward a Postmodern Reformed Dogmatics (1), John Franke (Professor at Biblical Theological Seminary) makes the point that postfoundationalist theology does not mean theology without foundations. Franke advocates for a postfoundationalist theology that rejects Enlightenment thinking and rationalism that has produced our current left and right. While disagreeing sharply on the issues, most of them drink richly from the fountain of enlightenment thought. Statements such as “The Bible is an inerrant book in its originals” are, at their core, rational statements that obey the law of logic. What post-enlightenment theology has done is to allow the laws of Kantian philosophy to run the show and has become subservient to rational logic. As Karl Barth points out in CD 1.1, Church Dogmatics, and for that sake church proclamation cannot serve anyone or anything except Jesus Christ. As Paul reminds us in 1 Cor 1, what God did in Jesus Christ was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks, for they demand signs and wisdom. Again appealing to Barth, theology is not a rational discipline, we cannot allow theology to sit by and obey Logic’s rules. Jesus Christ was both the Son of Man and the Son of God, he was fully man and fully God. Statements like that not rationally sound statements, so to build a theology based on the rational logic defeats the very purpose of theology.
Postfoundationalism may actually be the best thing to happen to the church in a long time.  It seems to me in reading pre-enlightenment theologians, which in my case is somewhat limited to Athanasius and John Calvin, that there are clearly foundations in their theology, namely for Calvin the knowledge of God as revealed through scripture, but Calvin is not interested in tying up all the lose ends into near theological systems like his followers did with the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession.  Theology that has everything wrapped-up into neat and tidy boxes, solutions like TULIP or the 4 Spiritual Laws, or the “Plan of Salvation” found in some bibles tend to take the historical narrative of scripture and flatten into a simple self-help process of getting one out of hell.  Such isn’t the vision of the Kingdom of God presented in the New Testament and certainly isn’t what Jesus taught people to do.  
1 – Available online at (http://www.emergentvillage.com/downloads/resources/franke/ReformingTheology.pdf )

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. January 28, 2006 at 5:43 am

    Thanks for posting this. If it weren’t for McLaren, I would not have had the language to articulate my own paradigm shift as a Christian at the ripe young age of 19. Now that it has been about 5 years since A New Kind of Christian came out, I’ve become very interested in Barth and had a chance to study with Alan Torrance in Scotland for a semester. I’m currently hoping to get into Princeton Seminary to study w/ Hunsinger and the gang.
    Looking back, I still appreciate McLaren as a pastor. ANoC was a difficult book to write for its intended audience – evangelicals. And we evangelicals don’t take so kindly to academic talk, so in that light I think McLaren succeeded. However, what I am more disappointed with McLaren for is that these books seem to get more editing of the theological concepts into everyday language, but no one edits the narrative itself. The narrative is rendered unimportant in and of itself, and it even gets annoying, making you wish that McLaren would just own Dan Poole and stop resolving a story that I never got sucked into. I wish McLaren, who has a masters degree in English, was more thoughtful in this regard. But the conversations did a great job of sucking me into the deep theological debacle of our time (which should have happened years ago, had evangelicals paid attention to Barth).

    A point of care: Barth does believe that theology is a rational discipline:

    “All dogmatic formulations are rational, and every dogmatic procedure is rational to the degree that in it use is made of general concepts, i.e. of human ratio. It can be called rationalistic, however, only when we can show that the use is not contolled by the question of dogma, i.e., by subordination to Scripture, but by something else, most probably the principles of some philosophy” (CD I/1, p. 296).

    Obviously, Barth does not believe in rationalistic theology, which is your point. It is not JUST a rational discipline, in the sense that our reason is not the ONLY faculty operating in dogmatics, nor is God, the object of theology, ONLY revealed in rational terms. But more importantly, there is a difference between theological rationalism and philosophical rationalism (see “How to Read Karl Barth” by George Hunsinger for the motif of rationalism in Barth’s thought pp. 49-63).

    I wrote to McLaren asking him what his experience with Barth was. You can read his response on my blog at http://barthamherst.blogspot.com
    Basically he read a lot of Barth, though he purports no expertise (nor do I, though I’m shooting for that), and talks about an experience he had reading CD I/1 and being overwhelmed by the transcendence (again, theologically understood!) and yet the presence of God with us in his Word Jesus Christ. It made him close the book and pause to comtemplate the wonder of Christ. Now if that ain’t systematic theology should be practiced! Go Brian!

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