Understanding E.T. – (Emergent Theology, not the alien!) – part 2 of a GenRef series…
Imagine that you are back with your Christian friend, talking in the hall after the theology class you’re taking together. You inquire about his placing asterisks on his copy of the Apostle’s Creed. “Yeah” he begins sheepishly. “Maybe the asterisk thing was over the top, a bit too in your face, and I don’t mean to be like that. Although it was funny when the prof read it and spit out his drink!”
You ask your friend what happened to his faith since you saw him last. After a minute’s reflection, he replies: “I stopped worshiping the idol of epistemic certainty.” Recognizing that the conversation is about to get very philosophical, you invite your friend to the Mars Hill of postmodern America: The local coffee shop.
As you scrunch into your chair behind a table the size and shape of a Frisbee, you can tell that your friend is working something over in his mind. He squints as his thoughts surface. Finally, he lets loose in a bluster: “Do you ever think that you’ve made an idol out of the Bible? Made it something it was never intended to be? I mean, think of the guys who wrote the Bible. They were part of a culture where questions were argued but not settled. But in the modern world, the church wants us to shut down the conversation; we need to have everything nailed down, laid to rest for all time. We don’t want to explore ways beyond the Bible in which God may still be speaking to us, because we think the infinite Lord of heaven and earth has already said everything He needs to . . . in a book!”
“Sorry” your friend says as he watches you choke on your coffee. “Please don’t get me wrong. The Bible is sacred, but I don’t think God wanted us to worship it, or that He meant it as His last will and testament to us. He gave us a dynamic, living Word, but instead of letting the Bible breathe, we suffocate it by systematizing it. We want all the loose ends tied up. We use Aristotle and his logic to interpret texts that came way before and way after him; we look for 17th century rationalistic certainty in a text written over 1000 years prior and from a completely different world view. We force an awkward fit among texts at odds with one another as we try to build these theologies… these, I don’t know what to call them…conceptual cathedrals!” (See A Generous Orthodoxy, p.168). “We build our ideas based on a blueprint the Bible never gives us! We make the Bible a science book, an archaeological field guide, a theological encyclopedia, the be-all-end-all of Christian knowledge! I mean, what do we expect to get after we crank the Bible through our philosophical factory but an idol?!”
Glad that your friend ordered decaf but wishing you hadn’t, you settle in for a long conversation and invite him to keep unloading his obviously troubled heart. You listen with deepening concern as he articulates for you his embracing of what’s come to be called “Emergence Christianity.”
Emergence theology (ET) is varied; our focus is what author Jim Belcher in Deep Church (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2009) refers to as its “Revisionist” expression. Our fictional friend follows teachers who self-consciously challenge traditional doctrinal definitions and framings of Christian faith. They vent their most heated comments against theology which they associate with the philosophy of Rationalism.
Rationalism dominated the “Modern” era of history, surging in earnest through 17th century Europe and flowering in the Enlightenment. (Not all flowers are pretty.) Rationalism prizes autonomous human reason as the starting point for knowledge and the arbiter of what may be considered “true” and knowable. Even from the definition, one can feel the conflict between Rationalism and Christian truths which, though not strictly irrational, are nonetheless beyond our ability to comprehend, truths such as the incarnation of Christ and the existence of God as Trinity. ET recognizes Rationalism’s spiritually suffocating effect on Christian theology, but it takes that critique further by decrying as idolatrous the very idea that we can know truth, especially religious truth, with certainty. Reformed Theology, then, is squarely within ET’s critical crosshairs.
Brian McLaren writes: “In terms of intellectual rigor, I believe that Reformed Christianity is the highest expression of modern Christianity, which is a sincere complement – and a gentle warning, too. If we are moving beyond modernity in general, then the forms of Christianity that have most successfully adapted themselves to the assumptions and thought patterns of modernity are in the most trouble.” (A Generous Orthodoxy, 210).
Particularly odious to Emergents is the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura – that the Bible alone is the only infallible rule for faith and life. Emergents do not like the terms “only” and “infallible” as applied to Scripture; “inerrant” is even worse! Writing for a popular Emergent blog, Nic Paton aptly expresses the Emergent view of Sola Scriptura: “A closed canon, a rejection (or fear) of contradiction . . . and the static and deterministic worldview of modernism has caused us to close down and defend the bible. … We still fail to see revelation as evolving, despite the fact that Jesus and his ministry was founded upon a progressive revelation of God.” (So Long, Sola? at emergentvillage.com)
Reformed theology emphasizes Scripture’s perspicuity – ironically, this word means “clarity”! The Reformers championed the common Christian’s right of access to and ability to understand the Bible. Emergents appreciate this effort. However, they believe that to insist that Scripture alone is God’s authoritative Word to mankind is to drown out God’s speaking through other aspects of creation and to place the Bible in an unnecessarily defensive posture against the disciplines of science, history, and textual criticism, the study of which sometimes raises disquieting questions about the content and composition of Scripture. Emergents thus reject Sola Scriptura, finding it obstructive to the church’s progress in society and, ironically, unbiblical. Paton summarizes: “What was a pillar of truth half a millennium ago has become an untenable deadweight (one is tempted to say, an idol) in the life of the church.”
Emergents warn that if we do not abandon our philosophical idols and emerge past modern Christianity, we will become increasingly useless to the faith we claim. We’ll be watching from the back, our protesting voices fading, as Jesus’ work in the world moves forward. Such analysis and warning prove persuasive to real people represented here by our fictional friend.
As this friend’s caffeinated catharsis draws to a close, he asks: “You’re a Calvinist, right?” Knowing that this question is often an accusation, you nod nervously. “Right” your friend continues. “Calvinists claim to be all about the glory of God, but if God is that glorious, then how can we truly know Him based primarily on admittedly fallible language, even biblical language, the imperfect expression of fallible, finite minds? I’ve realized that we can never really describe God as God really is. When we talk of God, we’re really talking about our perceptions of God. Those perceptions are never perfect; so by maintaining a humble uncertainty in our faith, our theological horizons can expand, and we can get to know all the more how awesome God really is!”
He pauses, letting out a contented sigh. “I wish you could rediscover God the way I have. You could, if you would just … move beyond modernity, rebel against rationalism and cast down the philosophical idols you’ve unknowingly worshiped.”
Your brain spinning and your heart feeling sick, you ask your friend if you can continue the conversation at another time. “No problem” he says. “I know this is a lot to take in. But really, thanks for listening.”
Despite his sincerity, something just does not ring true in your friend’s description of his newly fashioned faith, and you feel the need to find out why.