CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On Emergents, Postmoderns, and Epistemological Suicide

Apr 16, 2011

The topics featured in my title have been addressed many times before on this site, but people keep raising questions and objections, so I have to keep dealing with these subjects. In this case a comment on a recent article got me wound up, and instead of writing a very long comment in response, I thought I would just do yet another article on all this.

I suppose there is a place for repeating things, for rehashing arguments, and for constantly restating various truths. Being as forgetful as we all are, one can never emphasise various biblical truths too often. So even though all this has been discussed quite often before, here I go again. The recent article in question was my review of Rob Bell’s new controversial book, Love Wins.

My commentator expressed concern about my certainty on these matters and said this: “As respectively as I possibly can be, Bill; take care that you don’t become Saul (of Tarsus) Muehlenberg, knowing without a shadow of doubt the depths of the mind of God; especially when the Bible is full of poetic symbolism. How often have any of us thought we understood a passage perfectly for years when suddenly a clearer understanding jumps out and we wonder how on earth we could have not seen the lucid cross checked intent of a Biblical passage.”

My first response would be this: Yes you are quite right, we can and do change our theological understanding over time, and we need to be careful here. That is of course true of all sorts of secondary doctrines in which genuine disagreement can take place.

But what Bell is writing about is not some mere secondary doctrine. It is not only a core teaching of Scripture mentioned many hundreds of times, but it impinges on all the other core doctrines of Scripture. The simple truth is, if everyone is going to be saved, and there is no eternal destiny of torment for the ungodly, then Jesus is a false witness, the disciples were deluded, the Bible is full of lies, and the entire history of the Christian church has been in deep error.

If I had been talking about various modes of baptism or styles of worship, this person’s comments would be spot on. But with all due respect as well – and without resorting to calling him Saul or any other name – this is not some inconsequential item which believers can just take or leave.

This is not some secondary teaching which has no impact on the biblical worldview and how we live the Christian life. Indeed, if universalism is true – or annihilationism, and Bell seems to happily toy with both notions – then everything we know as Christians is basically wrong.

For example, why in the world did Jesus give us the great Commission? Was he just having us on? Was he deluded? A liar? Playing games? The imperative to tell others the good news of the gospel which runs everywhere in the New Testament, and is demonstrated powerfully in the book of Acts, makes absolutely no sense if Bell and his buddies are right.

Indeed, the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection equally make little sense if the trendy emergent view of things is correct. It seems everything we have been taught as Christians now has to be jettisoned and entirely reworked. Of course plenty of emergents have proudly said that is exactly what they want to do.

They want us to effectively reinvent the entire Christian worldview. They certainly want a new milder, gentler and far less certain version of it. They want a Christianity which questions everything, doubts everything, and is assured of nothing.

Thus the comment of my Christian critic makes good sense in this way of thinking. It is of course entirely consistent with postmodern thought and deconstructionist thinking. These twin wicked sisters both value doubt, uncertainty, mystery and 99 shades of grey.

They decry the notions of absolute truth, conviction, assurance, certainty and black and white. And given that the church regularly and slavishly follows the surrounding culture, we have the very same thing here. The emergent church especially takes pride in affirming the tenets of postmodernism, while decrying any evangelical certainties.

So today the doctrine of hell is up for grabs. Tomorrow – and I don’t doubt for a moment we will have to wait long – it will be the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and other core basics of the Christian faith. Indeed, emergents are already seriously questioning the very nature of the atonement, and why Christ had to die in the first place.

Thus by the reasoning of my friendly critic here (and that of Bell, the emergents, and the postmoderns) we would also have to say that all biblical doctrines and Christian verities must be held on to quite lightly and loosely. If doubt is the chief virtue here, if uncertainty and questioning are some of the greater Christian values, then of course no doctrine should be clung to too strenuously and resolutely

Instead of saying that the Word of God is our sole standard of truth and morality, now we have to say at best it might be, and then again, so too might be the Koran. Instead of saying with strong conviction that Jesus is the only way to the Father, we now will have to say, ‘Well, I think he is, but I don’t want to be too dogmatic about this, and I certainly don’t want to offend anyone.’ Instead of saying that when I die, I will live forever somewhere, we will now have to say, ‘Well, I sure hope so, but then again I should be open to changing my theology’.

Indeed, every single saint who died a martyr’s death would now have to be re-evaluated. Instead of seeing them as Christian heroes, we now should see them as dogmatic, intolerant, bigoted and rather narrow-minded believers who really need to latch on to the postmodern view of things.

They were far too dogmatic and sure of themselves. But of course then it is not just the saints of old, but every great character in the Bible, including Jesus himself. That is because we find daring, bold and sterling expressions of theological and epistemological certainty running throughout the entire Bible.

I would have to write dozens of articles just to showcase some of these examples. Everywhere we turn to in Scripture we see biblical faith celebrated not as doubting everything and believing nothing, but as passionate conviction, assurance, and certainty.

It is that sort of faith that Christian martyrs are made of. Postmodern and emergent faith would never have resulted in one single martyr. Indeed, if anything, Peter’s denial of Christ or Judas’ betrayal of Christ would be more in line with PoMo and emergent thinking. These were real Christians – they were not dogmatic and arrogant, but were willing to question everything and challenge everything.

On Biblical faith and conviction

Now, as I have said so many times before, does the conviction and assurance of Biblical truths mean that we are to be arrogant, unbending, never admitting to some new understandings, and so on? Of course not. I have said time and time again that we must always remain on our knees in prayer and dependence on God. We must be humble in other words and admit that in our fallen and finite and fallible condition we will never have exhaustive truth. But as Schaeffer always said, we can still have true truth about what is important.

Have I changed some of my theological views over the years? You bet, certainly on many of the more peripheral issues. But should I change my views on the core doctrines? Nope. I don’t care if Rob Bell and the entire emergent church movement come out next year with new books and teachings on how we have to just relax on believing Jesus is God.

They can ramble on all they like about how we have to settle for questions, doubts, mystery, and lack of certainty, and how this somehow makes us more spiritual and more Christ-like. But not me. Like Job, I will say, I know that my redeemer lives. Like Peter, I will say, we know that you alone are the one who has the words of eternal life.

Like Paul I will say, I know in whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep me. Like John I will say, we know that we have eternal life in the Son. Like all Christians throughout church history I will say boldly, and with unmovable certainty, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

In closing, and getting back to the topic at hand, let me just finish with two quotations. You decide which one, if any, is in fact true:

-“Will everyone be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t.” (Rob Bell, Love Wins, p. 115)

-“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son…. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” (Jesus, John 3: 18, 36)

[1597 words]

19 Responses to On Emergents, Postmoderns, and Epistemological Suicide

  • I may be 99% wrong and 1% right, but here is my 1% speaking:

    Rob Bell, not everyone will be saved. I pray that God will reveal truth to you so that you will not cause others to stumble.

    Annette Nestor, Perth

  • Thanks Bill

    I get what your trying to convey here, to me it makes perfect sense and is easily understood.
    You never mentioned in any way that a Bible verse cannot be revisited, but no stretch of the imagination can we for one second, believe there is no Hell.
    I mean this is paramount, an absolute and there’s no room to move on this.

    Daniel Kempton

  • It’s about growing up and about letting the Bible speak. Not all of the Bible is poetry. Much of it is plain instruction. The problem is not the Bible, it’s that we subjectivise the Bible into our own mystical meaning.

    Stop asking, “What does this mean to me?”

    And ask, “What does this mean?”

    “If you confess Jesus is Lord with your mouth and believe God raised him from the dead in your heart you will be saved.” has a core meaning.

    The peripherals may be debated and applied differently. What does it mean to confess? Does it mean the same thing today? Does Jesus is Lord have implications beyond a simple theological statement… etc etc etc

    But it cannot mean that confession is unimportant, that faith is peripheral.

    When one says some rot like, “I think God just wants me to reach out and try to be a better person and that’s enough for him. That’s what it means to me.”

    Then what your reader says is true. If you use the Bible as a personal springboard into your own reflection and imagining, then of course it will mean something different to you each time.

    But if you let it speak…

    Michael Hutton

  • Thanks Michael

    Yes quite right. Of course anyone with a modicum of understanding about biblical hermeneutics recognises that we must take into account the various literary genres used in Scripture, poetry included. But such genres are not incapable of being interpreted. And even if we did leave aside all poetic accounts of eternal judgment, we would still be left with heaps of prose discussions of this topic.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • The thing that I have realized recently is that one of the chief goals of ’emergents’ is to try to make the gospel more palatable to people as if that improves the power of it to save. They assume if people reject the gospel there’s something wrong with the way it’s being presented. But they are falsely assuming that all would be well if only the presentation was right for that person.

    We are coming up to Easter. Recently I considered the occasion of Jesus’ death and in particular, the thieves on either side of him. Both were originally heaping insults at him, both watched events unfold in front of them exactly the same, but only one repented, acknowledging his guilt in plain view. This situation astonishes me – because both had exactly the same exposure to the truth and both knew they were going to die that day.

    But I wonder if saving everybody was the chief goal of Jesus, why did he only promise paradise (and by that, salvation) to one of the thieves who died next to him? Does that mean that Rob Bell would believe ‘love’ lost here for the other one?

    The rejection of many, or most, to the Gospel cannot be presumed to be a presentation failure, nor is it to be used as a justification for self-righteous and poor examples of testifying to his salvation plan. God’s plan is utterly perfect and yet Jesus was mocked, rejected and scorned. Can we invent a better gospel than Jesus? No, we cannot.

    The gospel is not an item on a menu that a man can consider at his leisure as if he were deciding at lunch to have chicken or beef. It is not choosing between medium and well-done. It is not vanilla or chocolate. It is life or death. It demands that people come to the end of themselves with all their failures and fall down and acknowledge their total and utter need of God. I sometimes think people forget who is the Creator and who is the creation and that He has already finished His perfect work (Jn 19:30) to do away with evil. That work is what it is. Ultimately, we just tell it.

    “Give me one hundred men who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergyman or laymen, they alone will shake the gates of Hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon the earth.” – John Wesley

    For Christ didn’t send me to baptize, but to preach the Good News–and not with clever speech, for fear that the cross of Christ would lose its power. (1 Cor 1:17)

    When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. (1 Cor 2:1)

    My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, (1 Cor 2:4)

    This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. (1 Cor 2:13 )

    Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God. We have done so not according to worldly wisdom but according to God’s grace. (2 Cor 1:12)

    For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” (2 Cor 10:10)

    I may not be a trained speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way. (2 Cor 11:6)

    Sadly I have friends who have been lured into the errors which Rob Bell and others like Brian McLaren teach. The worst thing is that one of their beliefs – that absolute truth cannot be known – justifies them in their own minds when they walk away from your challenges to compare these heresies with Scripture. (Apparently, they must believe Paul was wrong when he wrote about teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness for being thoroughly equipped for every good work. – 2 Tim 3:16-17) All I can do is pray that God will reveal to them their lack of belief in God and his great power that defies human wisdom. I hope they come to a place where they understand these words of Jesus:

    “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.” (Luke 10:21)

    and then Paul also wrote this:

    For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

    Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

    Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:18-31)

    (Postscript: I found it ironic that when I googled ‘rob the gospel of its power’ up came several references to Rob Bell and Love Wins. It seems many others see great error in Bell’s work.)

    Mark Rabich

  • Jonathan Edwards famed sermon: ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’ would be an anathema to many emergents – Jonathan aimed it at those who were sitting securely in the pews thinking there was no consequences for their hidden unbelief – that sermon dangled its hearers over Hellfire – and caused many to get serious about God.
    But then how many today read sermons or accounts of the lives of our forebears in faith – it must be new to tickle the ears of the hearers.
    Stephen White

  • Thanks Stephen

    Yes they not only would they hate Edwards, but to be consistent they should hate the Bible and Jesus as well. Bell likes to claim the Bible and Jesus never use the threat of hellfire as a motivational factor. But they both do often, along with even using the rewards of heaven as a motivational factor. But these guys think they know better than God, and can do things so much better than he.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,
    Incredible insight and help here. As a pastor I enjoyed this so much. I appreciate the teaching and insight to expose the false teaching so we may continue to “hold forth the word of Life.” Thank you for helping me understand the issues.
    Pastor Bruce McBride

  • Many thanks Bruce.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • This debate will continue as different parts of the church body seek to minister and love others in different ways. There are times for stern warning and also times for loving another as a brother or sister and allowing the Spirit who brings conviction to grow ones understanding of God.
    Although i agree that we need to uphold biblical truth and preserve what we believe is absolute, we also need to be careful that we dont slander parts of the body of Christ who look slightly different than us. To call and promote a believers love for others as ‘false teaching’ seems quite divisive to me, given that none of us have an absolute and full understanding of God and scripture. If it is our belief that what another understands of God is in error, then we should be able to enter into the debate and bring what we believe is Gods true revelation, but our real fight should be with those who wage war against Gods Kingdom, not to divide the diverse body of believers and condemn Christs bride.
    It is right to question and ask God to reveal his truth, but this man is preaching the Love of Jesus as the way to the father. He speaks as part of the body of believers, just as we do, and to criticise him so harshly is causing the type of unnecessary church division that we should be doing everything to avoid. Love must win, even when we want to correct and uphold that which we believe to be true.
    Brad Kirkwood

  • Thanks Brad

    Is unity a good thing? Yes, but it has to be based on biblical truth. Is love a good thing? Yes, but it has to be based on biblical truth. If not, then we have neither biblical unity nor love. Cults can have plenty of superficial unity and love. We need to be far more discerning here.

    I have already said in my related article on Bell’s book that we dare not seek to isolate one attribute of God from all the others. That will guarantee error and heterodoxy every time. Every cult and heresy in the world proceeds on that basis.

    And let me remind you who is “causing the type of unnecessary church division that we should be doing everything to avoid”. For 2000 years the Christian church was largely spoken with one voice in proclaiming this core and clear biblical teaching on the eternal punishment of those who reject God. Hell was almost unanimously affirmed and proclaimed, except for some small, usually heretical groups. Then Bell and the emergents come along, telling us we have been wrong for 2000 years, and those who hold to the traditional teaching are the ones who are being unloving, harsh and so on. Just who exactly is causing division here Brad? Who exactly started this fight Brad?

    And I am condemning no one. People condemn themselves when they wilfully proclaim their heterodox teachings. Was Paul being condemning and unloving when he resisted the Judaisers, or Peter for that matter? Was Jesus being condemning and unloving when he too challenged false prophets and false teachers? Was Elijah being condemning and unloving when he challenged the prophets of Baal? Sorry, but only those with an unbiblical understanding of love will sit by while clear heterodoxy is being pumped into our pews and not give a hoot about it.

    And sorry, but it is not possible to “minister and love others in different ways” when we deliberately reject core biblical teachings. This is not loving and this is not Christlike.

    As to the connection between love, truth and unity, I have written about this plenty before, so I recommend some of these posts:
    www.billmuehlenberg.com/2009/03/23/truth-and-love/
    www.billmuehlenberg.com/2009/03/16/on-truth-and-unity-part-one/
    www.billmuehlenberg.com/2009/03/16/on-truth-and-unity-part-two/
    www.billmuehlenberg.com/2008/08/12/on-biblical-love/

    But thanks for writing in.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • An important question to ask is “What is ‘gospel’, and what is ‘culture’?” This is a question asked by many cross cultural missionaries as they struggle to present the gospel in a place (initially) strange to them. It is a reasonable thing to change the packaging in which the gospel is presented in order to make it more readily understood by those receiving it, but in doing so you must have already carefully thought through the answer to the question above. Do not change the gospel in an attempt to change the packaging in which the gospel is presented.
    John Symons

  • I thank you for this article Bill – it has been particularly helpful to me at this time. I agree, it won’t be long before the new postmodern view of the deity of Christ is altered to be “acceptable” to our culture of “ME ME”. Today I saw a Church advertising its’ Good Friday Service with the words “People are still being crucified for being ‘different’.” Mind you, it is fast becoming ‘different’ to actually believe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and to believe His words that we have to choose between heaven and hell.
    Joan Davidson

  • Quite right John. The packaging or presentation of the gospel can always be altered, but we must never alter the content or the message itself.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Exactly right Joan.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Replying to Brad, There is always the right time to refute heresy! That time is immediately one is alerted to the heresy. Yes it is a principle of the Christian mandate to love but we must at all times be quick to refute heresy or any teaching that conflicts with the pure gospel of which we only have one – see Colossians 1:13 “God rescued us from the dark power of satan and brought us into the kingdom of his dear Son (ESV); Col 1:28 “we announce the message about Christ, and we use all our wisdom to warn and teach”; Col 2:4 “I tell you these things to keep you from being fooled by fancy talk”; Col 2:8 ” Don’t let anyone fool you by using senseless arguements..”they may sound wise but are only human teachings..”; Paul has clearly demonstrated in his letter to the Colossians it is very necessary at all times to nip in the bud ANY false teaching.
    Col 2:18 “don’t be cheated by people who make a show of acting humbly..”v19 “they are no longer part of Christ, who is the head of the whole body..” Another one, “You stupid Galatians,How can you be so stupid” Gal 3:1,3 There is only one true gospel so Paul says “I am shocked that you have so quickly turned from God…when there is only one true message..I pray God will punish anyone who preaches anything different from our message to you..” Gal 1:6-8.
    I read Rob Bell’s book years ago and it caused me so much concerned I dialogued with his team for some time as they must have sensed I had good cause for concern. I had to refute his book then as we must do so now.
    Ilona Sturla

  • Many Christians / church leaders complicate things by their various theological arguments.
    The Bible tells us to be like children – just believe and receive the TRUTH = JESUS = the WORD of God manifest in the flesh (John 1:1,4 Rev 19:13)
    We need to recognize and acknowledge that ‘God is Truth’ and cannot lie! His Word is our standard and first and final authority. That He doesn’t change, and that Jesus is ‘the way, the truth and the life’, that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, once for all!! That there is no other way we can be saved but through Jesus shed blood and our believing and receiving Jesus as Lord and Savior of our lives.
    Then we have a responsibility to OBEY the command of Jesus in Matthew 28.
    Barb Hoc

  • “Stand for nothing, fall for everything”.
    Beautiful phrase Bill. I love a succinct truth that rolls off the tongue like poetry.
    Much the opposite to those who try to roll up the truth and discard it as poetry.
    As always, any politically-correct gospel is an aberration based on attacking the authority of Scripture. My Bible is not “full of poetic symbolism”, it is mostly a history book. Really-truly, actually-happened type of history.
    You know, that particular kind of history that the average person would call … um … history!
    It’s only complicated if you don’t believe it.
    Tim Lovett

  • Don`t forget the old “it`s been messed with in all the Human translations over thousands of years, I asked the Spirit and he told me this…” Surely God can manage to get His Scripture translated sufficiently enough for us to know “Hell” or “No Hell”. Or why wouldn’t God have said He`ll be bringing out a post modern version for us at a latter date. (re: Rev 22:18-22)
    John Archer

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