by John Hendryx & Nathan Pitchford
It takes very little acumen to see that, in modern American Evangelicalism, there is much amiss. One of the many problems confronting the Church today is a lack of correspondence between the truth one espouses and the life one leads. Many Christians would hold intellectually to all the doctrines and truths they have received, but their lifestyles show that their heart is elsewhere. And some within the Evangelical world, having perceived this disconnect, are offerings critiques and solutions in various ways. One such group, reacting to the unwholesome state of the Church, and hoping to offer a better way, is the movement known as the Emergent Church. But just what "problems" are the Emergents critiquing? What doctrinal and practical changes are they suggesting? And are these critiques and suggestions biblically tenable and likely to be helpful toward forming a more genuine and vibrant Christianity? Or is their cure actually worse than the disease they are treating?
To understand what the Emergents are saying, we must understand a little of what postmodernism is and what it espouses. In postmodernist thought, the Enlightenment produced the modernist world of holding with rigid certainty to a foundational set of beliefs, arrogantly refusing to listen to any other opinion, and using their self-professed "truth" to wield power in the world. According to the Emergents, modern Evangelicalism is largely shaped by Enlightenment thought. The church arrogantly holds to a rigid standard of truth, using it for power and influence, but not living lives of faithfulness to its precepts. The Church today is big on "certainty," but low on humility and faithfulness. And for the Church to grow in the right direction, she needs to abandon her Enlightenment-like certainty. What she needs is not certainty, but faithfulness. Not certainty, but humility. The opposite of faith is not doubt, they say, but certainty. And to lead lives of faith, we need to "deconstruct certitude".
The connection between knowledge and power is indissoluble in the modern world, as Foucault pointed out. According to this theory, those who have knowledge tend to use it to strengthen their own positions, and to impose their will on those lower on the totem pole, so to speak. According to postmoderns, certainty is the favorite stronghold of every brand of obnoxious fundamentalism. Many believe that our categories and outdated frameworks have failed us, so we have to seek and find a new synthesis. Old ways must be set aside, as we drop certitude and become seekers and learners instead. Certainty puts us in control; but to be a faithful Jesus follower we must be willing to let go so we can discover a new level of dependence on God. The true Jesus follower will begin to see how deeply immersed he/she has become to a narrow set of rules, firmly entrenched in a limited Enlightenment epistemology: an outdated way of knowing the world, they claim.
In light of this, many in the emerging church like to point out that the Lord is unlikely to ask, "Were you right?' but rather, "Were you faithful to the truth you knew?" This latter question, they claim, has more to do with faithful Jesus following, or the life of a disciple.
How should we respond to all this? What of the assertion that faithfulness is to be pursued over against certainty, as illustrated by our previous quote, "the Lord is unlikely to ask, "Were you right?' but rather, "Were you faithful to the truth you knew?"
First. we must answer with a question: How are we to know what we are to be faithful to? If I have been convinced of the truth that the gospel must be proclaimed authoritatively and with certainty, am I to be faithful to that truth? But if I am, my very faithfulness is in direct contradiction to the teaching that faithfulness must take the place of certainty. Actually, faithfulness demands it. And this is necessarily the case with the Emergents as well: because they are "certain" that we should not speak with certainty, they certainly and faithfully condemn all who do speak with certainty. In the end, faithfulness can only come as a product of certainty -- and this is a truth that even Emregents have not been able to avoid.
But a more fundamental problem is that this quote misunderstands the gospel at a very basic level. The gospel is not about how faithful I was, but how faithful Jesus was. The gospel is not about my life as a disciple or what kind of a Jesus-follower I was, but rather, how faithful Jesus was for me. I demonstrate the grace that Jesus has worked in me by following Jesus, I do not follow Jesus in order to get the grace. This unbiblical reversal of the Biblical order will only bring deadly consequences. In the emergent version of spirituality it appears one does not need to be rescued from sin and wrath. Assisted, yes, but not rescued, especially not through the cross.
To emphasize the point, consider the phrase "Jesus follower" in the emergent vocabulary. This sees Jesus as a moral example rather than a Savior. If, in the end, living with kingdom ethics all depends on following Jesus' example, then truly I have no hope ... and in fact, none of us has hope! The gospel is about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not as a moral example, which no one can follow, but as God, the Savior of mankind, who came to rescue his people from their sin, doing for them what they cannot do for themselves. Following Jesus' ethical teaching while rejecting the need for for our wholesale redemption means the emergent church is placing on people is a deadly ungospel ... a yolk none of us can bare. This is an attempt, through our disciplines, mysticism and "Jesus-following" to live in ways that please the Lord, apart from the substitutionary atonement and resurrection of our Lord on behalf of sinners like us. We are sons and not slaves ... we work out of a renewed heart, not in order to reach some higher amorphous spirituality, but because it has been granted to us .By envisioning the gospel as some kind of mysticism and ethics rather than God's historical act of redemption in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, it ultimately makes the gospel and spirituality about us rather than about Him. If there is no certainty in God's revelation to us in the Bible on any topic (not even the gospel!) then it seems the emerging church is promoting the idea that to be faithful followers of Jesus we just need to let go and discover a new mystical dependence - where our understanding comes, not as the Spirit illumines the certain word to our hearts, but as our community comes together and decides what God is speaking to us at the moment.
I can't help but recall the words of the The apostle who said that in the last times there would be people who are lovers of themselves who are "ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth." – 2 Timothy 3:7. Doesn't this aptly describe those who want to become learners but shun all certainty and true knowledge.
The pitting together of certainty and faithfulness against each other, as we have observed, is both self-contradictory and directly antagonistic to the bible. But what about the bifurcation between certainty and humility? Surely, we must at least acknowledge that it is arrogant to speak with utter certitude, and denounce the opinions of other people as positively wrong? But again, this idea is both self-contradictory and antagonistic to the gospel: self-contradictory, because it is proclaimed with such certitude, and antagonistic to the gospel because it sets man and his reasoning in the place of God. In reality, there is no arrogance like that which refuses to believe the clear truth of God's own Word. It is arrogant to assert that we cannot know truth certainly when God himself has said that Christians can and do know truth certainly (see John 8:31-32; 16:13; 17:8; 1 John 2:20-21). It is arrogant to hear the direct teaching of the bible and say, "I'm too humble to believe that for sure". What a strange sort of humility, that exalts itself against the Word of God! The same thing may also be said of the false dichotomy between certainty and faith. Is it not telling that the Emergents say that certainty is the opposite of faith, when the only place where the bible defines faith it calls it "the assurance of things hoped for, the certain conviction of things unseen"!
As with all inconsistent worldviews, there is a certain degree of truth in what is being said by emergent postmoderns. We must acknowledge that many people have historically used certainty for oppression and power. Even many persons who claim the name of Christ have done so. But could this not be said of any position, including the emergent one? They seem to be quite "certain" of their position of uncertainty and want others to believe it as well. It seems to be central to their gospel dogma, which has affirmations and denials and a missionary force, just like every other creed. If they are certain of the "dogma of uncertainty" then isn't it fair to ask if they are not using this as an attempt to gain power over others? And since certainty is impossible to avoid at some level, rather than pretend that we are free from it, it is a better question to ask how we can maintain certainty without oppressing others. I think THAT is the question we must ask. And the answer to this question is in the gospel itself: The "grace narrative" rather then the "moral improvement narrative", as Tim Keller likes to call it. As long as we think we must judge ourselves by our morals, then we always compare ourselves to others, and boasting is the inevitable consequence. But when we come to understand the gospel of free grace, as we should, then all pretence falls away because I see myself as I really am ... a sinner who justly deserves the wrath of God save for Christ's mercy alone. In fact, there are many people (skeptics) out there who may be better morally than I am. Therefore I can have solidarity with everyone; with the poor, the disenfranchised, the criminal, because that's me if left to myself. It is the grace of God ALONE that makes me to differ, and so I can only point to Jesus and what He has done for me for there never will be someting I can point to in myself which makes me superior to others in light of God's majesty and holiness. The emerging church may be right to point out that modern fundamentalism wields power in unflattering ways, but it was not because of its certainty, but rather because of its semi-pelagian roots: its' belief deep down that it is better than others. But the gospel of grace is the great equalizer which shows me that I am simply a beggar pointing out to other beggars where they might find bread. So a robust Calvinistic understanding of the sovereignty of God and the finished work of Jesus on our behalf would go a long way in recovering the gospel which is essentilly lost in most modern evangelicalism, including the emerging church. Yes. the church has historically sought power in unbiblical ways. So the problem of power is one we must deal with but it is not because of of our certainty, but because we were certain in the wrong things. Again, Tim Keller likes to point out that fundamentalism is not the problem of wars in the world. "Just look at the Amish", he says. It is the wrong fundamentalism that causes wars and oppression, not fundamentalism itself. So the answer is to be more certain and faithful to the gospel, not less.
Is this emergent doubletalk supposed to persuade us to trade our form of certainty for their certainty? By denouncing the modern, and exalting their newfound postmodern epistemology, are they not "certain" that their epistemology is the more correct way of viewing the world, and thus better? Does this inherent contradiction not make their epistemological uncertainty and humility a sham? This is the kind of stuff we might expect when watching CNN or listening to NPR. News-channels are often trying to pretend some kind of objectivity, and all the while, they are promoting a certain viewpoint whether by stories and facts they omit, or by emphasizing the reporting of stories on certain topics that are currently important to them, thus swaying the masses to think a certain way. Whenever I read pieces by the emerging church I get the same uneasy feeling of general dishonesty. It's as if they are looking down on everybody else for having a position of certainty, as if their new dogma somehow transcends all these categories, when in fact, it merely creates a new one. How long can one pretend when the very philosophy one promotes does the very thing it critiques?
The world and its philosophies are always changing. One generation looks back and laughs at the one that went before it. Old philosophy will be replaced by the new. And what is new today will be looked at with disdain 100 years from now. The bible is God's word to us and it transcends the whims of opinion and speaks to us. True Christians should be able to look back and have solidarity with Christian brothers and sisters through church history who believed the same things, things that have their ground in certainty. But many in the emerging church give the impression that all of church history has been wrong and that they finally got it right today. But we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior:
"This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek." (Hebrews 6:19,20)