CultureWatch

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A review of Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be). By Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck.

Apr 24, 2008

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.

[1651 words]

28 Responses to A review of Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be). By Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck.

  • Thanks Bill. When I think about people picking and choosing what to accept of the Bible, I always think that it will eventually become meaningless. For in picking and choosing, a person demonstrates that he/she doesn’t believe in the authority of God’s word and thus anything that doesn’t fit in with what I like can be thrown away in the trash.

    I have grown up learning that the Bible is God’s word and thus carries with it his authority. I am thankful to God for this.

    As a young Christian I agree that there are several problems with the emergent church.

    Still, we need to remember that God loves everyone. We should pray for the people in the emergent church. That they will come to see the truth and their lives will be transformed.

    Matthew Mulvaney

  • Hi Bill,

    My View of the Emergent Church has always been a bit of a skeptical one… Although I can understand where some of their frustrations about the 21st Century Evangelical Church comes from, I feel that the message they seem to be protraying is somehow slipping away from the Centrality of the Gospel.

    You have raised a point in your article that mentions some Emergents as having trouble declaring Jesus to be the only way to Salvation. I was wondering if you could discuss if anyone Leaders in Chrisian Community see them as ‘sect’ as apposed to a Christian Church…

    Also I was wondering if you could perhaps discuss the Difference between “Emerging” Churches and the “Emergent” Movement???

    Mauricio Hernandez

  • Thanks Mauricio

    Some Christians would perhaps call some of the more radical members of the emerging church as bordering on being heretics, with some of their radical understandings of Christianity. These two authors don’t call it a sect or heresy, and they seek to be very gracious to the movement, although they are very concerned about many aspects of it. The do wonder how some of them can continue to call themselves Christian, when they seem to deny or play down or show uncertainty about so many basic Christian doctrines.

    As to the two terms, they tend to be used interchangeably, although there is a more specific thing known as the Emergent Village which is a subset of the overall movement.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks, Bill.
    Let me make three comments:
    1. The whole emergent church movement is really, as you say, the old liberal programme in post-modern dress. I had to put up with all this sort of nonsense about “relationship-not-propositions” and the like when I was a student. There’s nothing new about it. And where has all that “emerged” to? Unbelief! The wiseacres I knew in college days who trotted out that sort of stuff incessantly are nowhere now spiritually: most have nothing at all to do with the church, or if they do they are unashamedly out-and-out liberals.
    2. There is in both the older liberalism and the emergent church movement a rejection of logic and propositions. However, let me issue a simple challenge to such folk: State your position without in any way invoking the Law of Non-Contradiction! It cannot be done. Merely to state the emergent position will entail that the contrary position is false, and thus any attempt to be non-logical is self-defeating. Likewise, the proposition that propositions are passe is an oxymoron; it contains an inner contradiction. Intellectualising about the dangers and dead-ends of (alleged) intellectualism is yet another inherent contradiction.
    3. On the alleged impossibility of interpreting Scripture. The older liberal and the emergent movements start with the proposition(!) that the Bible is an ancient human book. Very well, let us look at other ancient and (very) human literature. In the C19th and C20th decipherers unlocked the entirely forgotten scripts and languages of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, the Hittites, the Canaanites etc, and opened up their literature for analysis. Huge advances have been made in understanding the language, culture, thought-forms, practices, etc. etc. of these buried civilizations, and the translations and interpretation of the host of texts is accepted without question. “The new hermeneutic”, as it is grandiloquently called, does not get a hearing in Egyptology, Assyriology, Hittite studies or the like. Yet the scholars in these fields began with everything against them: forgotten scripts, forgotten languages, alien and forgotten cultures, and so on. None of these disadvantages attended Biblical scholarship, yet we are glibly told that there we can’t know, everything is fluid, the “two horizons” forbid any settled meaning of a given text, and so on. This all sounds like special pleading, scholastic cowardice, and sheer hypocrisy to me!
    Murray Adamthwaite

  • That’s a good point by Dr Adamthwaite about the vacuity of postmodernism when it comes to other ancient texts.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • There is some kind of emergent network in Australia. The website is www.forge.org.au
    There is not much sense to be made of it since much of the text found there is a good example of what Don Watson has termed “weasel words”.

    Ewan McDonald.

  • Thanks Murray and Jonathan

    But it applies to modern texts as well. The emergent leaders are writing books all the time – books which they expect their readers to read, to understand, and to hopefully agree with. They assume that their books have meaning, and that the reader should be able to ascertain that meaning. Yet when it comes to the Bible, we are told that we must not be too certain about what the author meant; that we are more or less left to our own subjective understanding.

    This has always been the Achilles heel of deconstructionism. Why should we pay the slightest attention to what they are saying, when they have just informed us that authorial intent can never be discovered? In which case, why waste our time in writing books that can mean anything to anyone? In other words, that mean nothing? It is a dead-end belief system. Yet many emergent leaders have slavishly latched on to this silly fad. In seeking to be trendy and relevant, they quickly prove to be irrelevant.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks, Bill, for that reminder. It has, of course, occurred to me often. I well remember in my student days the incongruity of the early deconstructionist writers giving forth long and learned dissertations on the inadequacy of words, e.g. in speaking about God, yet they expected their own words to be regarded as adequate and understandable! I remember also trying to point out to one of my teachers this contradiction: many words on the inadequacy of words. I was peremptorily told not to be a pedantic smarty-pants! Yet eventually the objection sank in to a number of students.

    All this highlights a fundamental test for any philosophical theory: it must survive the application to itself of its own postulates. If it fails there, then it must immediately be discarded. To take but one example: logical positivism, which was popular a couple of generations ago, proposed that only what was empirically verifiable was significant and acceptable for knowledge; what was called the”verification principle”. The trouble was, this verification principle was not itself empirically verifiable. This simple point was made many times, and peremptorily dismissed. However, the objection eventually sank in, with the consequence that logical positivism died a natural death. It has now gone from the philosophy departments of universities.

    Likewise, the tendency is that one does not find deconstructionism in philosophy departments; one only finds it in English and History departments. Reason: deconstructionism will not stand the the rigour that philosophical analysis requires.

    As to deconstructionism, let us hope that its own inner contradictions and absurdities will eventually become obvious, and the objections that you and others urge will prevail, and we thus witness the demise of this nonsense philosophy.

    Murray Adamthwaite

  • And God’s Word is still able to speak to this “emergent” trend:

    The Preacher “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity and striving after wind.”

    🙂

    John Angelico

  • I would say that a resurgence of spiritualism is part of the problem. The emergent church is merely the Christian side of it. I think that this 21st century spiritualism encourages the wanting of mysteries, magic, esoteric knowledge and seeking this or that without specific rules and regulations one must abide by. It encourages “fluffy bunnyism” instead of rigorous thinking, doctrine and strict moral codes. “Weee! We can all still be Christians without actually having to think or behave as such!”

    Sounds like the same poison Satan peddled in Eden, repackaged for a new generation.

    I’ve met quite a few people who seem to think that they can tell me that we really can’t know or understand God when they find that I’m a Bible believing Christian. They think that Christians who are confident about their own faith in God and their knowledge of the Bible are intolerant or arrogant. What a presumption! I wish they would speak for themselves.

    Victoria Demona

  • It’s a shame that the publishers of deconstructionist books don’t take a leaf from them and reinterpret the royalty agreements. After all, we can’t possibly know what the decontructionist really meant when he signed a $100,000 advance, so the publisher is entitled to believe that he really meant to write for free. Same goes for university accountants when it comes for salary agreements with decon lecturers.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • The EC is simply another ‘Church movement’ to be assessed just like any other. There are legitimate criticisms being made my and against the EC just as there are legitimate criticisms against any denomination or congregation I’ve ever seen. And yet the faults with ALL Churches have the same source. Like everything else, I choose to eat the meat and throw away the bones. TBH the Emergent ‘Conversation’ is much more appealing than sitting through another boring Church service where we hear the same ‘ol sermon week after week, sing a few songs and call that ‘worship’ and then pretend to be best buds with everyone. Only through honest and open dialogue can any of us, individual or congregation hope to grow in the wisdom and understanding of Christ and on that note the Emergent Church offers some solace.

    On the other hand the way it embraces postmoderism with Kimball’s dictum of “Questions are more important than answers” should be of concern to any Christian. But then the Emergent Church heresies are a bit more obvious than some of the other ones the Church at large has embraced over the last few years.

    There is nothing new under the sun.

    John Wilson

  • Personally I think the submergent Church has more going for it.

    www.wittenburgdoor.com/the-submergent-church

    Paul Harry

  • See James Patrick Holding’s review of a leading emergent, Brian McLaren:

    A New Kind of Christian
    A Generous Orthodoxy

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Thanks Jonathan

    And for what it is worth, here is my review of Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, another leader in the Emerging Chruch: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/07/a-review-of-velvet-elvis-repainting-the-christian-faith-by-rob-bell/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill. This looks like a valuable read. It is an interesting trend in the Church. I think literature like this is important for all evangelicals to read, as there is a groundswell of interest in this style of church.

    The emerging/emergent movement has its good and bad aspects. Most of the bad is the, as discussed already, compromise on central Christian truths which some of the leaders of the movement are prepared to make.

    See www.sebts.edu/Convergent/GeneralInfo/ (I think this is the correct link) for Mark Driscoll’s critique of the movement. Also, here is, I guess, his overview of the movement; media.marshillchurch.org/ . It is under the ‘Religion Saves’ series. Both worth a listen. Driscoll is very critical of aspects of the movement, but quite comfortable with others. For example, he is supportive of Australian emergents Mike Frost and Alan Hirsch. He is extremely critical of Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren and Rob Bell. It appears he has good reason to be, as well.

    Ewan, Forge are an urban mission and emerging church network with a largish base in Melbourne. Their focus is largely on connection with culture and examining ways church could “be done” differently. I think what they set out to achieve is important, as it attempts to broaden the scope of outreach to a wider spectrum of the community. They challenge traditional conceptions of church and encourage people to invent new ways of connecting with the community. I wouldn’t dismiss them so readily.

    Simon Kennedy, VIC

  • Simon, I wouldn’t dismiss them if I could only understand what they are on about! From their ‘about us’ page:

    “….the network is led by active missional practitioners and as such is able to offer significant experiential training in pioneering contexts while accessing academic accreditation from key training institutions all over Australia.

    Who speaks like this other than bureaucrats and Kevin Rudd?

    Ewan McDonald.

  • Haha, that is rather baffling, Ewan. Fair point there!
    Simon Kennedy, VIC

  • Some people dismiss the need for propositional revelation with an alleged statement by St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Where necessary, use words.” But this statement is both unbiblical and spurious.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Keith Windschuttle on the Evanjellyfish Left:

    …for the past thirty years, the Evangelical Left has bloated itself on such a diet of myth, propaganda and atrocity stories about Australian history, about our role in the contemporary world, and especially about our chief ally and best friend, the United States, that it no longer believes in or cares about objective truth. [“The Struggle for Australian Values in an Age of Deceit” Quadrant 51:1–2, January 2007.]

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Hello, Bill.

    This is a fantastic read, and I’m pleased to see it and other pieces by concerned Christians about some of the things that are being passed off as biblical Christianity. I recall hearing about McLaren through one of our pastors who began reading his “New Kind of Christian” book and wanted to use it for our Sunday School class. Even before knowing a lot about it, the first couple of sessions made me feel very uncomfortable. When I started researching McLaren, Rob Bell, etc, and saw what they were involved with, it really alarmed me. What alarmed me more was that most of my fellow Sunday School attendees seemed to be simply nodding their heads and sucking it all in.

    Anyway, I bought the D.A. Carson book, read it (very good book, btw!) and lent it to this particular associate pastor. I pray and hope he’ll take it seriously. I think what worries me the most is that this particular pastor is very well-grounded in theology, and I don’t believe he fully embraces all aspects of the emergent church. Still, for him to endorse Bell and McLaren is alarming.

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

    J. D. Aiello

  • Great comentary! Good to hear what our brothers and sisters are thinking Down Under. I’m reading the book myself after several conversations with Emergents here in the Chciago area and it’s refreshing to hear sanity and balance coming from the book and from this site!

    Peace –
    Steve Laughlin, USA

  • Thanks Steve

    Welcome aboard and thanks for your thoughts. Good to have someone from the Windy City sharing similar assessments of this movement. Yes, the areas of concern are fairly similar down under as well as in the US. We need to work together to make an impact for the Kingdom, wherever we may be located. Keep up the good work.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill, The most worrying thing about the emergent church movement is that most of the ideas held by leaders of the movement were ALL proposed as a “new wave” of spiritual enlightenment, by the woman who coined the term “NEW AGE”, Alice Bailey, who wrote with ‘help’ of her spirit-guide; “The Tibetan”, or “Djwhal Khul”, one of the “masters of the Wisdom”. Her writings outline “The Plan” for bringing the Christian churches into the fold of “The New World Religion” and cross referencing them with the writings of ’emergent’ leaders shows that the principals outlined (and terminology) are practically indistinguishable from one another. Paul spoke of “another gospel” and to wary of it.

    Blessings to you,
    Alan Heron, Melb.

  • Hello all, I’m new to this blog, so this may not be the place to ask.

    Has anyone seen a good critical review of Frost and Hirsch’s book: The Shaping of Things to Come ?

    I have just finished reading “Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be” and wish all my emerging/emergent friends would wake up to the dangers associated within the movement. Likely, they’ll say their glad that more have entered into the “conversation”, but will fail (intentionally) to address the actual concerns raised and enter into any serious dialogue about the many dangers their theology (or lack thereof) presents to the souls of men and women who are following the EC.

    Someone I am supposed to trust (He is a leader in my ministry organization) then recommended Frost and Hirsch’s book to me and though I’ve only just begun to read it, my discernment meter is flying off the charts because I’m already detecting many of the same attitudes and ideologies that Deyoung and Kluck so clearly identify in their book. I’ve searched for reviews on Shaping but have only found more emergents giving these guys “down under” applause and accolades.

    Thanks for any insight any of you can offer.

    Ken Heizer, Kansas City

  • This is a very good article and articulates well the reservations that I have with the emerging church movement. I am interested in reading the book as the title also describes me well. A few years ago I was very emerging and still appreciate that the movement has strengths aswell as weaknesses and believe that leaders like Hirsh and Frost have a lot of valid challenges to make to the church today even though I may not agree with everything they say. It is true that their is no need for dichotimies but rather a balanced fully orbed witness of Christian faith in the world today. This criticism is to both emerging Christians as well as to more conservative Christians that sometimes don’t acknowledge that experience and mystery is important. If we are too harsh to the emerging church and don’t become “conversant” then it is likely that young people in this movement will not have the opportunity to consider the challenges made by people outside the movement. In my experience emergent Christians care deeply for their world and long to succeed in genuinely sharing the love of Christ with people. Their intentions are good and they need as much wisdom from Scripture and the Church as they can get in order for this passion to be honed.
    Conor Ryan

  • Gidday Bill,

    Funny you know the Uniting Church in its decay has now infiltrated the ‘Bible’ Believing Uniting Churches. I have just departed from a Uniting Church that believes in post modernism, no longer uses Biblical truth, or expository preaching. The uptake of this is a whole heap of flakey Christians who don’t even have the grounding of the Word. So they accept it as truth.

    So the Uniting Church not only has heretical teaching, it has the ‘new form’ of heretical teaching in post modern preaching.
    This has now swept the Churches who ‘used to believe’ and now perhaps, maybe, don’t know that Scripture is the rule…
    One week there was a sermon using the ‘five pillars’ is Islam as a good example for what we can learn on how to operate a Church with the Koranic prayers of an example of how to pray. This congregation now believes that websites of explorefaith.org is acceptable and can ‘teach the old dog new trick’…..

    Gary Whelan

  • I found this article very helpful. I’m going to get the book and I’m also going to do a good spring cleaning of my bookshelf. It’s about time too.
    Annette Nestor, Perth

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