Moody, 2008. (Available in Australia from Koorong Books)
These two young guys are sceptical about megachurches, how-to-sermons, legalism, the effects of modernity, marketing gimmicks, and overly aligning faith with politics. They know that Christianity is not just doctrine, and they are aware that the Bible has been misused. And they want their faith to be relevant and they seek to be conversant with their culture. Thus they are aptly qualified to be representatives of, or advocates for, the emerging church movement.
But they are not. Indeed, the more they learn about the emerging church, “the harder it is to swallow”. Thus this book. It is a detailed assessment and critique of the emerging church. The pair seek to be as fair as possible, and are clearly aware of the strengths of the movement. But unfortunately the many weaknesses must also be addressed. They affirm many of the emergent diagnoses, but find most of the prescribed remedies to be quite troubling.
Of course D.A. Carson offered a critique of this movement in 2005, as did R. Scott Smith, who also penned a volume that year. But this new book is really quite superb in giving us a balanced appraisal of, as well as a serious warning about, the emergent movement.
So what in fact is it? Well, like postmodernism which it is so enamoured with, it is an amorphous and hard to identify movement. But simply put, it likes to make antitheses, favouring one polarity over the other. It favours relationships over rules, conversation over preaching, doubt over certainty, postmodernism over modernism, discussion over theology, orthopraxis over orthodoxy, action over theory, embodiment over rationalism, journey over destination, and so on. But as the authors note, why make such either/or scenarios? Why can’t it be a case of both/and? Why create such false dichotomies?
The genuine Christian church should be marked by both “grace and truth, logical precision and warmhearted compassion, careful thinking and compassionate feeling, strong theology and tender love,” and so on. Why cannot both be affirmed simultaneously, instead of demanding that we must choose one or the other, as so many emerging thinkers and writers demand?
Consistent with postmodernism, the emerging church folk have a strong dislike of rationality, theology, propositional truth – indeed, truth of any kind. They look down on dogma, rules, teaching, preaching, boundaries and doctrine. While they reject some things we should reject – legalism, unloving judgmentalism, head over heart, and so on – they have a tendency of throwing the baby out with the bath water. In reacting to one extreme, they go way over to another extreme. What is needed is biblical balance, not wild pendulum swings.
Consider the issue of our knowledge of God. The emergent crowd generally argues that we should be content with mystery, wonder and questions. We cannot pin down God and he is too big to be put in a theological box. That all may be true, but they go to unnecessary extremes here. Emergent leaders “are allowing the immensity of God to swallow up His knowability. In good postmodern fashion, they are questioning whether we can have any real knowledge about God in the first place.”
But God is a God who reveals himself, who speaks, who acts, and discloses truths about himself to finite mankind. If God does not have a problem with this, why do the emergent leaders? Sure, we only have partial knowledge of God, but as Francis Schaeffer used to say, we can still have true truth, although not exhaustive truth, about God and his world.
As one of many unnecessary and unhelpful antitheses, many emergent leaders argue that we can know God personally, but we cannot know him propositionally. We can have a relationship with God, but we cannot really know too much about him. But this is just plain silly, as well as unbiblical. How can a man love his wife, for example, while knowing little about her? Knowledge about others is necessary in order for us to have a relationship with them.
Similarly, the emergent crowd makes much of relationship over against rules and regulations. Do’s and don’ts and laws just don’t cut it anymore. Instead, Christianity is all about love and relationship. But as the authors rightly remind us, relationships must be guarded and preserved by rules: “Try telling your wife after you’ve had an affair, ‘Come on, I thought our marriage was about the relationship, not all these do’s and don’ts’.”
Take also the common emergent charge that evangelicals worship the Bible, are guilty of bibliolatry, and are more concerned about dissecting Scripture than being transformed by it. Sure, that can often be the case. But once again, the emerging church leaders throw the baby out with the bathwater. They end up taking a very low view of Scripture instead.
Christ himself had a very high regard for Scripture, so we should as well. As the authors note, “For every fundamentalist who loves the Bible more than Christ … there are several emergent Christians who honor the Bible less than Christ did.”
Related to this is the whole postmodern idea that we are only left with interpretation. The emphasis of the deconstructionists is that we can never really know what the author intended. All we are left with is our own subjective understandings.
The emergent infatuation with deconstructionism is dangerous business indeed. By abandoning any sure word, by saying we are only left with interpretation – not final truth – the emergent crowd is leaving us all in a sea of relativism and uncertainty. But God is quite able to communicate to us and to use words in such a way that are understandable and meaningful.
Of course we all misinterpret things, because we are fallen and finite. But Scripture throughout insists that there is real meaning in the text, that it can be communicated to us, and that we can have some genuine understanding of it, albeit in a limited and not exhaustive fashion.
But if we can never be sure about anything, why do the emerging leaders seem so certain about what they are trying to tell us? The authors remind us that the emergent leaders want to tell us that our traditional understandings (for example, about hell, exclusivism, the nature of the atonement, etc.) are faulty, yet they somehow seem certain about this, and that their alternative understandings are the ones to adopt.
They say traditional evangelicals have been misinterpreting the Bible, all the while saying we can never really know that any interpretation is true. Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. If anything goes in interpretation, then why should we heed the emergent leaders any more than, say, Paris Hilton?
The authors point out that the emergent writers confuse humility with uncertainty. They think it is a good thing that we are not dogmatic, but instead live with ambiguity, mystery, doubt and questions. Indeed, many of them equate faith with doubt. They dislike hard and fast theological systems, and they dislike those who claim to have some solid handle on the truth, equating that with pride and intolerance.
But that does not square with the Biblical writers, especially the early apostles. They claimed to have the truth, to know the truth, and to proclaim the truth. They proclaimed the gospel as certain truth, and were willing to die for their strong convictions. But the emergent crowd wants us to hold onto things so loosely and so tentatively that one must ask, what gospel are they in fact offering to people?
“The apostles never preached with the double-talk and ambiguity you find in so many emergent books” the authors state. And the idea of a non-doctrinal Christianity – the no-creed-but-Jesus mentality – is simply the stuff of old-fashioned theological liberalism. It is weak and wishy washy, and converts no one.
This Jesus-versus-theology foolishness is typical of theological liberalism, and is the sort of thing H. Richard Niebuhr once denounced in these terms: “The liberal gospel consists of a God without wrath bringing people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.”
Indeed, the emergent gospel leaves a lot to be desired. Many in the movement have real trouble with saying Jesus is the only way to salvation; are squeamish about propitiation; dislike talk of hell; and have a very low view of Scripture. As the authors stress, on so many levels, the emerging church advocates are really quite identical to the old theological liberals. “The only difference is that the old liberalism accommodated modernity and the new liberalism accommodates postmodernism.”
And although the emergent movement prides itself in challenging the old ways and being a trailblazer, it is quickly becoming a new rigid orthodoxy. The emerging church may have its roots in rebellion against more traditional forms of church, and seek to be always new and innovative, yet as the authors demonstrate, in many ways it too has become another type of traditionalism. It has its own books, authors, conferences, websites, and devoted followers. It has become establishment, in other words, although seeking to be anti-establishment.
It may, in fact, be just another passing fad. It is certainly trendy, and it remains to be seen if it will have anything of real value to offer the body of Christ. Certainly in some of its less extreme forms it may well have helpful contributions to make. But in some of its more radical forms, it may in fact simply be destructive, even heretical.
The books of McLaren, Bell, Pagitt, Kimball, Jones and others will undoubtedly continue to sell well, and their conferences will probably still be sell-outs. But it is a movement that is in urgent need of balance. And this book is an excellent resource in helping to bring about that balance. It is hoped that this very important book sells as well as do the books of the emergent church. It has a message that desperately needs to be heard.