Written by Michael W. Pursley
The other day someone linked an article I was publishing into a blog promoting the views of what is commonly called Emergent Theology, or the Emergent Church. I was shocked.
Why would a liberal, anything goes, marginally Christian movement have any interest in the views of the Puritans? And what doctrine would Emergent Theology have in common with the twin Puritan views of Grace and the Christian life in particular? Needless to say, as one who holds to the London Baptist Confession of 1689, complete with its “federalist perspective”, it made me scratch my head and blink twice.
Having loosely followed some of the earlier groups which have led to and fostered the thinking of the Emergent Church, it has always seemed extraordinary that this particular movement should attract so much discussion and have so much credibility, inasmuch their debates and platforms were always so existential in nature, with very few “hard” specifics in the details. The spectrum of discussions and articles streaming from this group, were to me, always nebulous in nature and extremely amorphous in language. However, I have found that if there was a gathering place where the discussions from this movement could achieve any degree of specificity, it was in their united perspective against the mainline churches. This discontent, I found, they communicated in a vociferous and strident fashion… while maintaining a posture of a positive, sympathetic affirmation for the poor, beleaguered, spiritually wandering and church benighted soul. And this is a perception that seems to be acknowledged across the board by most observers.
If I may use an easy point of reference, Wikipedia points out that the Emergent Church, crosses a number of theological boundaries:
“participants can be described as Protestant, post-Protestant, Catholic, evangelical, post-evangelical, liberal, post-liberal, conservative, post-conservative, Anabaptist, Adventist, Reformed, charismatic, neo-charismatic, and post-charismatic.”
Obviously, this is a politically correct way of saying by the writer, that members can and do believe in whatever they wish.
However, look a little deeper at the movement’s objectives set out in this description from Wikipedia:
“Proponents believe the movement transcends such “modernist” labels of “conservative” and “liberal,” …to emphasize its developing and decentralized nature, its vast range of standpoints, and its commitment to dialogue. Participants seek to live their faith in what they believe to be a “postmodern” society. What those involved in the conversation mostly agree on is their disillusionment with the organized and institutional church and their support for the deconstruction of modern Christian worship, modern evangelism, and the nature of modern Christian community”.
You may make a note, that the transcendence spoken of here is not a return an adherence of original, Biblical Christianity. Instead, it is an attempt to “live their faith in what they believe to be a “postmodern” society”: Thus, the basis of their disillusionment with the organized and institutional church, and thus also, their need to deconstruct the institutions and pillars of both the church and the morals of the Christian community.
In one of the philosophy forums I infrequently occasion, the question came up about what is a “postmodern” society”? Listen to this professor’s response (Note: I have shortened his response and removed a little of the technical jargon):
“Post-modernism is basically the idea that reality is not reflected in our understanding of it, but is constructed by our own understanding of our own personal reality.”
“…it’s almost an existential view that the individual and the experiences of the individual are relative and that scientific thinking and moral thinking do not suffice to understand human existence.”
“Society today is shaped by personal experience, self-seeking, and mass media, rather than the religious and moral institutions which shaped society for so long.”
“There is no absolute truth anymore. In our post-modern society truth is relative. The vast majority of the population leads a eudemonistic lifestyle, which claims “if it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.” (Sounds like “Fifty Shades of Gray”!)
“Society has strove great lengths for equality in race, sex, and religion. As we reach nearer these goals, we have melded into a more unified society with few clear boundaries in the areas of our lives. There is no longer such a distinct boundary of black and white and other races as interracial relationships have become acceptable. Homosexuality is no longer shunned as it once was. Music and entertainment are next to impossible to classify as culture, ethics, and religion combine. In the same [manner], what’s right for me may be wrong for you, but that’s okay. With our loosening of moral and religious standards, there is no wrong and there is no right. Truth is subjective.”
Within this subjective set of perspectives, you can see why Emergent Church adherents have their “disillusionment with the organized and institutional church and have placed their support for the deconstruction of modern Christian worship”; For it is by making their belief system “above” Christian norms, however one defines them, they have created a place where “there is no wrong and there is no right. Truth is subjective.”
However, Historical Christianity takes a much different tack, Historical Christianity holds that the truths or doctrines found in scriptures are in fact “objective truths”, or what we call doctrines, not “subjective truths” or mans opinions. Historical Christianity further holds that these objective truths “cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” James 1:17 (See, 2 Tim. 3:15-17). In short, objective truths come from an objective God. Historical Christianity also maintains that the subjective aspects in our “truths” are in fact, due to man and his sinful condition.
Listen how A. W. Pink clarifies this:
It is by doctrine (through the power of the Spirit) that believers are nourished and edified, and where doctrine is neglected, growth in grace and effective witnessing for Christ necessarily cease. How sad then that doctrine is now decried as “unpractical” when, in fact, doctrine is the very base of the practical life. There is an inseparable connection between belief and practice—”As he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Pro. 23:7). The relation between Divine truth and Christian character is that of cause to effect—”And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32)
In short, ardent Emergent Church proponents somehow feel that there is no real right and wrong, because truth itself is subjective. And, since there is this high degree of subjectivism, there is almost no basis for any true self-accountability.
You can see their dilemma. Upon what standard would you base your accountability? Since, in their thinking, accountability is created and is determined by a subjective standard, and this standard is in turn, created and arbitrated by a subjective and existential God.
The implications of this platform is staggering for orthodox Christianity. If accountability to Almighty God is subjective, then you can you see how much less accountability they believe should be given to an existing church body. The thought of being called into question, and held to the standards of a local Christian body must seem especially abhorrent to Emergent Church proponents; not because of any great fear of their “sins being found out”, their subjectivism has already excused them on this basis: but on the basis of, “Who are you to judge me?”
Obviously, the thoughts and thinking behind the Emergent Church and its theology are not really new thoughts, and their thinking is not necessarily new thinking. But it has, you might say, been at least, somewhat loosely systematized and in a style typical to its amorphous nature.
Problematically the Emergent Church has had in the past and even now trumpets, a number of leading theologians behind it; and by that I mean, professors who hail from some of the major, “heavy weight” seminaries and who “feel constrained” to champion their cause. For many of us, the question is, why? Why would significant number of some of the most acclaimed, and “brilliant” theological thinkers of the 20th and now the 21st century promote anything less than a complete, historical and Biblical Christianity? What is in it for them? What is their motivation?
Clearly the reasons and motives are many, and there is no time or space here to expand on the group dynamics that led to the Emergent Movement, but once again, let me apply the words of A. W. Pink:
“It is because so many untaught men, unregenerate men, now occupy the pulpits that “another gospel” (Gal. 1:6) is being so widely and generally disseminated. Multitudes who have neither “tasted that the Lord is gracious” nor have “the fear of the Lord” in them, have from various motives and considerations invaded the sacred calling of the ministry and out of the abundance of their corrupt hearts they speak. Being blind themselves, they lead the blind into the ditch.
If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you probably know that, all throughout the history of the Christian church, Biblical Christianity, or what theologians call Biblical orthodoxy has been under attack. But yet, historically, these detailed fundamental Christian truths have always found away to stand up, even under the worst of attacks, that is, until now.
Next time we will look at Part 2. Orthodoxy vs. Orthopraxy: What is the Symbiotic relationship between Faith and Practice; How does this Interrelationship Affect the Christian life, Understanding and Theology.