by Rutledge Etheridge
Imagine that you and a Christian friend you’ve not seen in a while are taking a theology class together. The teacher hands out copies of the Apostle’s Creed and asks the students to sign them if the Creed accurately represents their beliefs. Happy to codify your Christian convictions, you sign your copy. However, you notice that your friend is busy making marks on his paper. You watch as he places an asterisk beside each statement of the Creed. He places one final asterisk at the bottom of the page and writes next to it: “These beliefs are subject to change.” He signs the paper and, with a smile, asks you about the concerned look on your face. Recognizing that you lack words to express your worry, he says kindly: “Relax! I signed the paper! I still believe those things, but I’m just not as dogmatic about them as I used to be. I know what you’re thinking: Without those basic beliefs, we don’t have real Christianity. But honestly, I think I’m more of a real Christian now than I’ve ever been.”
This fictitious scenario represents very real conversations I’ve had with Christian friends attracted to the teaching of the Emergent Church. The Emergent movement, or conversation as its advocates prefer, is not making as many headlines as it has in recent years. However, this year’s national conference of the Evangelical Theological Society held just last month bore witness to the potency and abiding presence of “Emergent” issues.
The ETS recruits as speakers some of the heaviest hitters in academic theology, internationally known scholars on the “cutting edge” of contemporary theological and philosophical developments and discussions. Most if not all of this year’s plenary lectures interacted substantially with topics at the heart of an Emergent approach to theology (hereafter ET), especially as it applies to the nature and content of Scripture. John Franke, one of the panelists in one of the best-attended panel discussions, is a leading scholar whose particular philosophy of theology is integral to ET. Though ET has lost some of its celebrity status, its heart continues to beat strongly as a force in evangelicalism and beyond. The fact that scholars of significant import are continually wrestling with matters at ET’s core means that the rest of us will continue to do so as well. What starts in the seminary always ends up on the street.
So, with permission from the editors of the The Reformed Presbyterian Witness, I’ve adapted for this blog a 2009 series of articles they asked me to write on the Emergent Church. The originals are heavily footnoted, taking the reader much more fully into the history, theology and philosophy at play in ET. Please contact the Witness via http://www.rpwitness.org if you are interested in the complete series of articles.
Back to the opening story! How is our fictional friend representative of ET? ET is especially attractive to believers like my friends, believers who are seriously re-evaluating their dogmatic, authoritarian Christian upbringing. Emergents crave an understanding of God not colonialized by any ecclesiastical establishment. They want a Christianity which grows out of and ministers to a postmodern world. Brian McLaren, a prominent voice in ET, writes: “ . . . I have become convinced that a generous orthodoxy appropriate for our postmodern world will have to grow out of the experience of the post-Christian, post-secular people of the cities of the twenty-first century.” (Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p.100)
To clarify, McLaren means that we need a self-consciously postmodern theology. The subtitle to A Generous Orthodoxy is telling: “Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, charismatic /contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.” McLaren’s work expresses the ET’s desire to be a jack of all theological trades, mastered by none. ET wants to maintain an essentially Christian identity while infusing the faith with the postmodern disdain for dogmatic certainty.
Rob Bell, perhaps the most famous name associated with ET, gives some illustrative imagery. He thinks of biblical doctrines as springs on a trampoline as opposed to bricks in a wall. Springs are sturdy but flexible; they can be adjusted as necessary, allowing users to jump and to feel the joy of flight. Bell sees such movement as analogous to a healthy relationship to God, a faith not grounded by the dead weight of inflexible, brick like doctrine. Practitioners of “brickianity”, however, are doomed to a frustrating faith, vulnerable to collapse. Their indubitable, inerrant doctrines are stacked upon one another such that if one brick falls, the whole fortress comes crashing down.
Bell writes: “What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry . . . and archaeologists prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing . . . ? What if that spring was seriously questioned? . . . Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian? Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live? Or, does the whole thing fall apart?” He goes on to write: “I affirm the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more . . . But if the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it?” (Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), p.026.)
Bell “affirms” historically cherished Christian doctrines, but he does not consider the elimination or alteration of these doctrines as detrimental to the faith. ET does not overtly deny cherished Christian truth. Rather, it denies the certainty with which we may know it. ET is open not only for the reevaluation of truth, but for the reformulation and redefinition of truth. The truth is out there, but as today’s conventional wisdom asks: “Who are we to say that we can know it?” ET encourages the unconditional affirmation of truth whose terms are constantly subject to change. It’s the Apostle’s Creed with Asterisks. It’s the perfect postmodern faith.
According to Emergents, theological certainty is an historical idol which present- day Christians must cast down if the faith is to survive, much less thrive, in a postmodern era. If we shed that philosophical shackle, we’ll be free to become what Jesus intends us to be: a body of believers, no longer torn by doctrinal division, but bent on changing the world with the love of Christ. Thus, ET hails doubters as the faithful and lack of certainty as faith’s saving grace.
There are deeply appealing aspects of ET, including its intense emphasis on mercy ministry and its incisive, often painfully accurate critique of established Western Christianity. Its invectives against the consumerism in contemporary churches and the coldness in historic churches hit home for multitudes of disillusioned disciples of Christ. Many who now identify themselves as Emergent do so because of their terrible experiences in established churches. Pastors eager to preach but unwilling to listen treat questions as threats and deride doubts as divisive. Struggling souls naturally look to leaders willing to engage compassionately and respectfully the questions and doubts consuming them. One of the primary reasons why people are listening to Emergent teachers is that Emergent teachers are listening to them.
Despite its compelling components, ET cannot provide the freeing faith it promises. In the following entries, we’ll explore ET’s driving principles. We’ll see the ways in which ET collapses beneath the weight of its own claims and critiques. But mere refutation of error is not enough to persuade those drawn to it by way of a broken heart. So, we’ll continue the story with which this blog began in order to emphasize the personal nature of these matters and to encourage truly Christ-centered engagement with the people and principles of an era-defining conversation.