Why We’re Not Emergent
Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck have written the book Why We’re Not Emergent (by two guys who should be) (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008; 256 pp.) I start to get really nervous when I hear others speak in unqualified, glowing and glorious terms about a book or speaker. Nothing can be that good, I say to myself. I’m really resistant to trendy endorsements of the next greatest thing. So I was obviously on guard when I began hearing and reading endorsements of the book, Why We’re Not Emergent (by two guys who should be).
But they were right. When I read blogger Phil Johnson’s three word response to the book (‘Wow, Wow, Wow’)1, I was more than a little suspicious. But now I’m ready to add one word to his summation: ‘Wow!’ So, yes, I’m here to join the chorus and jump on the bandwagon and drink the Kool-Aid with the rest. This is the best book I’ve read in years.
Of the many questions I’m asked these days, especially by those perusing my website2, perhaps the most frequent is whether or not I’ve written anything on the emergent church. Aside from my seven-part review of what D. A. Carson wrote in his book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Zondervan, 2005),3 the answer is no. I’m quite sure that, having now read this book by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, I won’t have to. They’ve said it all, and boy do they say it in a thoroughly persuasive and winsome way. So don’t write or call asking if I’ve written an article or preached a sermon on this subject. Just go get this book and read it several times.
It’s no longer true, obviously, that I haven’t written anything on the emergent church. This review of DeYoung and Kluck counts as something. But I don’t regard it so much as my comments on the movement as I do an extended commentary on theirs. My fear is that some will not heed my advice and fail to read the book for themselves, so I’m going to give you the next best thing: my summation of its contents together with personal observations, rants, raves, and other assorted responses. So here goes.
Kevin DeYoung is the thirty-year-old pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, who is the first of two who ‘should be’ emergent. Notes DeYoung,
With all the television and movies I’ve seen, I should be less linear, and more attuned to stories and images. At the very least, I should be in some quarter-life crisis of faith. I should be wondering how all that I’ve known as Christianity can survive this postmodern matrix. I should be questioning church as we know it and reimagining church for my generation . . . I should be joining many of my peers in decrying the evangelical ‘bubble’ and its closed-minded, doctrinally rigid accounting of the Christian faith . . . I should have tried to make peace with my conservative upbringing and the more liberal Christianity of my professors by veering off into the emergent world of mystery, journey, and uncertainty – the perfect porridge of not quite fundamentalist, not quite liberal. I should have . . . rebelled against my family upbringing, finding it, in hindsight, stilted, stoic, and staid. I should have, like so many of those in the emerging church, chaffed against my evangelical past and charted a more emerging future. But I haven’t. (14)
Instead, DeYoung says that he preaches
long, doctrinal, expositional sermons that proclaim the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the reality of hell, the demands of obedience, the call to evangelism, the duty of mercy ministry, and the glorious truths of unconditional election and particular redemption. (14)
Ted Kluck is thirty-one-years old and is a professional writer, mostly of books on sports themes. He describes himself as looking the part of an emergent Christian, but don’t be deceived. ‘I really like church’ (26), confesses Kluck, in spite of its ‘requisite plastic chairs, lame carpet, and bad coffee’ (27). Kluck writes what he calls the ‘shorter, and more “experiential”‘ chapters in the book, while DeYoung devotes himself to the ‘longer and more propositional’ and more ‘thinky and academic’ ones (27).
Just so you know, I plan on devoting most of my time to the chapters by DeYoung. That’s not because Kluck’s are unimportant. Far from it. They are a sheer delight to read and you will miss much if you overlook them. But since they are of a more personal nature and portray his own encounters with emergent people and churches, I’ve decided to focus on the theological analysis of emergent found in DeYoung.
Before I go any further, a brief word about the term emergent is in order. DeYoung and Kluck wisely choose to use emergent and emerging interchangeably, in spite of all the efforts by many to draw some significant distinction between them. What’s important for our purposes is that you know what emergent means. Instead of a formal definition, the authors provide this description. It’s long, but quite typical of their insight and refreshing style. Trust me, you’ll love it. Read it as if Jeff Foxworthy just said, ‘You might be a redneck if . . .’
You might be an emergent Christian: if you listen to U2, Moby [this is Storms: will someone please tell me who or what ‘Moby’ is?], and Johnny Cash’s Hurt (sometimes in church), use sermon illustrations from The Sopranos, drink lattes in the afternoon and Guinness in the evenings, and always use a Mac; if your reading list consists primarily of Stanley Hauerwas, Henri Nouwen, N. T. Wright, Stan Grenz, Dallas Willard, Brennan Manning, Jim Wallis, Frederick Buechner, David Bosch, John Howard Yoder, Wendell Berry, Nancy Murphy, John Franke, Walter Winks [sic] and Lesslie Newbigin (not to mention McLaren, Pagitt, Bell, etc.) and your sparring partners include D. A. Carson, John Calvin, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Wayne Grudem; if your idea of quintessential Christian discipleship is Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, or Desmond Tutu; if you don’t like George W. Bush or institutions or big business or capitalism or Left Behind Christianity; if your political concerns are poverty, AIDS, imperialism, war-mongering, CEO salaries, consumerism, global warming, racism, and oppression and not so much abortion and gay marriage; if you are into bohemian, goth, rave, or indie; if you talk about the myth of redemptive violence and the myth of certainty; if you lie awake at night having nightmares about all the ways modernism has ruined your life; if you love the Bible as a beautiful, inspiring collection of works that lead us into the mystery of God but is not inerrant; if you search for truth but aren’t sure it can be found; if you’ve ever been to a church with prayer labyrinths, candles, Play-Doh, chalk-drawings, couches, or beanbags (your youth group doesn’t count); if you loathe words like linear, propositional, rational, machine, and hierarchy and use words like ancient-future, jazz, mosaic, matrix, missional, vintage, and dance; if you grew up in a very conservative Christian home that in retrospect seems legalistic, naive, and rigid; if you support women in all levels of ministry, prioritize urban over suburban, and like your theology narrative instead of systematic; if you disbelieve in any sacred-secular divide; if you want to be the church and not just go to church; if you long for a community that is relational, tribal, and primal like a river or a garden; if you believe who goes to hell is no one’s business and no one may be there anyway; if you believe salvation has a little to do with atoning for guilt and a lot to do with bringing the whole creation back into shalom with its Maker; if you believe following Jesus is not believing the right things but living the right way; if it really bugs you when people talk about going to heaven instead of heaven coming to us; if you disdain monological, didactic preaching; if you use the word ‘story’ in all your propositions about postmodernism – if all or most of this torturously long sentence describes you, then you might be an emergent Christian (20-22).
Note well, this means you might be an emergent Christian, not that you certainly are. After all, there are a few things in that long list that I applaud, but I’m far from being emergent in any sense of the term! You also might be inclined to respond to this descriptive sentence by saying, ‘But there are so many false dichotomies! It’s not always “either-or” but sometimes “both-and”.’ Of course! But that’s one of the annoying things about emergents. They are given to an array of false dichotomies. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The fact is, DeYoung and Kluck themselves applaud some of what they say about emergent distinctives:
We too are weary of marketing gimmicks, how-to sermons, watered-down megachurches, and the effects of modernism. We fully recognize that the Bible has been abused and no one understands it exhaustively. We agree that there is more to Christianity than doctrinal orthodoxy. We welcome the emergent critique of reductionistic methods of ‘becoming Christian’ (sign a card, raise your hand, say a prayer, etc.). We are glad for the emergent correction reminding us that heaven is not a cloud up above for disembodied souls in the sky, but the re-creation of the entire cosmos. We further agree that we ought to be concerned about bringing heaven to earth, not just getting ourselves to heaven. In short, we affirm a number of the emergent diagnoses. It’s their prescribed remedies that trouble us most. (22-23)
This last sentence is important. For several years I’ve said that emergents are quite good at analyzing our culture and the trends that have captivated and often enslaved the church. But their proposed solutions to the problems they’ve identified are largely off the mark, even dangerous.
Well, enough by way of introduction. It’s time to get down to specifics. My one wish is that you will be sufficiently intrigued by what you’ve read thus far that you go buy the book and become so immersed in reading it that you never return to this lengthy review. Nothing would make me happier than to know that these are the last words of mine that you’ll read (assuming, of course, that it’s because you’ve been captivated by DeYoung and Kluck). But if you do choose to continue with me, please don’t consider this review a substitute for studying the original.
A consistent refrain heard among the emergent is that the Christian life is primarily about the journey and our experience along the way, and less about the destination. The result, at least for them, is that ‘the Christian life requires less doctrinal reflection and more personal introspection,’ which ‘feeds on and into a preoccupation with our own stories’ (34). DeYoung identifies what he believes are three problematic implications of this perspective, only two of which I’ll mention.
First, it undermines the knowability of God. All Christians in every tradition have acknowledged that God is inexhaustible. No one will ever know God exhaustively, not even in the glorified state of heaven. But that doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about him accurately. According to DeYoung,
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, accurate knowledge about God in the first place. (35)
Here again we find a false dichotomy. Emergents leave us with what appear to be only two options: either you arrogantly claim to know everything about God rationally or you know nothing about him at all. Or if you do know something, it is ‘personal’ or ‘relational’ knowledge. We see here the typical emergent distrust of language and God’s apparent inability or reluctance to communicate truth to the human mind. But this runs counter to everything we see in Scripture and in redemptive history. Says DeYoung:
The God of the Bible is nothing if He is not a God who speaks to His people. To be sure, none of us ever infinitely understand God in a nice, neat package of affirmations and denials, but we can know Him truly, both personally and propositionally. God can speak. He can use human language to communicate truth about Himself that is accurate and knowable, without ceasing to be God because we’ve somehow got Him all figured out. (37)
On several occasions in reading books by emergents, I’ve come across their appeal to the illustration of the blind men encountering an elephant. One touches the trunk, another the tail, another his leg, and yet another his ear. Each formulates a different understanding of what an elephant is, none of which, however, has an entirely accurate grasp. DeYoung responds,
But what if the elephant spoke and said, ‘Quit calling me crocodile, or peacock, or paradox. I’m an elephant, for crying out loud! That long thing is my trunk. That little frayed thing is my tail. That big floppy thing is my ear.’ And what if the elephant gave us ears to hear his voice and a mind to understand his message (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14-15)? Would our professed ignorance about the elephant and our unwillingness to make any confident assertions about his nature mean we were especially humble, or just deaf? (37)
This isn’t to deny the element of mystery in Christian experience (another especially popular word among emergents). God will always remain inexhaustible and infinite. But
mystery as an expression of our finitude is one thing. Mystery as a way of jettisoning responsibility for our beliefs is another thing. (39)
A second problem with the emergent view of journey is that it tends to equate uncertainty with humility. To argue that we can accurately know who God is as revealed in Jesus, so the emergents tell us, is ‘the same as pinning down Jesus and summing up God’, a reflection not only of our stupidity but arrogance. But why can we not have both a humble searching for God, a recognition of his ultimate infinity, together with a measure of confidence, even certainty, that what knowledge we do have of him is true? DeYoung notes,
There is a place for questions. There is a time for conversation. But there is also the possibility of certainty, not because we have dissected God like a freshman biology student dissects a frog, but because God has spoken to us clearly and intelligibly and has given us ears to hear His voice. (40)
it is not a mark of humility when we refuse to speak about God and His will except in the most ambiguous terms. It is an assault on the Holy Spirit and disbelief in God’s ability to communicate rational, clear statements about Himself in human language. (40)
This points yet again to the ‘either-or’ mentality in many emergent authors. It is the false dichotomy that says you must know something exhaustively or omnisciently in order to know it truly.
But aren’t we capable of knowing truth unambiguously without having to know it with invincible certainty? (41)
This tendency among emergents to insist on the inherent uncertainty of knowledge becomes problematic when ‘you write books trying to convince people to believe or behave in certain ways’ (41). In other words, ‘radical uncertainty sounds nice as a sort of protest against the perceived dogmatism of evangelical Christianity [which, I might add, often appears to be the primary focus of all emergents], but it gets in the way when you want [to] prove your point’ (41). Somewhere in the midst of your rants against certainty and your insistence on the ultimate unknowability of God you will need to be clear about your beliefs if you hope to persuade others they are true.
One example of the celebration of ambiguity among emergents concerns their stance on homosexuality. Let’s be clear about one thing. As Christians we must display the same compassion and kindness toward the broken and struggling as did Jesus. All people should be treated with dignity and love. But that shouldn’t prevent us from drawing a line on ethical issues on which the Word of God speaks. I applaud the desire not to hurt anyone and the recognition that homosexuality in particular is a complex issue. But the refusal of many emergents to take a stance on this subject
also hurts people – it hurts those struggling to overcome sexual temptation, it hurts those gently calling homosexuals (along with other sinners) to repentance, and it hurts those who dare to speak with certainty on the issue. (47)
Following a brief chapter (Two) in which Kluck introduces us to Rob Bell (‘He has the requisite black-framed glasses that everyone our age who considers himself learned has these days. I have them too,’ confesses Kluck ), and his best-selling book Velvet Elvis, DeYoung continues his interaction with the issue of knowledge and propositional truth (Chapter Three).
In particular, he focuses on the emergent view of the Bible. Emergent Christians still love the Bible, or say they do, but for a different reason. The way the Bible functions in their lives has taken on a new shape. The Bible isn’t viewed as the authoritative, inerrant and objective revelation of God that provides us with eternal and timeless truth. It is, rather, a unique collection of literary artefacts that tells a story which we are invited to join.
At the centre of the emergent (postmodern) view of Scripture is the disdain for propositional truth. A propositional statement is simply an assertion that can be either true or false. Either what is proposed corresponds to reality (and is true) or does not (and is false). Emergent Christians, however, don’t like to think of the Bible in these terms. They rightly point to the fact that Scripture is filled with stories and parables and questions and poetry and a variety of other literary genres. Christianity, they say, is fundamentally a relationship with a person, not belief in propositions.
Strange thing, though: that last statement is a proposition! To assert that Christianity is a relationship with a person rather than belief in propositions is a propositional statement that is either true or false. Try as they may to escape propositional truth, even emergents must employ a propositional statement to deny them (or to minimize their importance). More important still, this way of articulating things forces us into another false dichotomy, as if to say one must embrace the Bible either as a narrative that leads us into relationship or as propositional statements that call for affirmation.
At the heart of the emergent worries over propositional statements is their fear that it reduces the Bible to a cold and sterile collection of theological assertions that we merely analyze, examine, exegete, and impose on others. There is a measure of truth here. Our aim isn’t merely to dissect the Bible but to be transformed by it. And, as DeYoung rightly observes,
there are scores of freshly minted seminary-trained pastors who bore their congregations with endless word studies and the ins and outs of genitive absolute. (71)
But he is also right to ask,
Why can we only affirm the Bible as family story by denigrating the Bible as a book to be analyzed and theologized? Why not go the more historically responsible route and uphold the Bible as both? (73)
Like it or not, the Bible is filled with propositional statements that call for a rational, informed response. In fact, one’s belief concerning the truth claims of the Bible’s many propositional assertions has eternal ramifications. Jesus himself said that ‘unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins’ (John 8:24). If we do not believe his claim to be the incarnate Word, we have no hope of eternal life. Yes, Jesus is a living person with whom we want a saving and life-changing relationship. But as DeYoung points out,
(the emergent movement) seems to be built on reductionistic, even modernistic, either-or categories. They pit information versus transformation, believing versus belonging, and propositions about Christ versus the person of Christ. The emerging church will be a helpful corrective against real, and sometimes perceived, abuses in evangelicalism when they discover the genius of the ‘and,’ and stop forcing us to accept half-truths. (75)
It’s not uncommon to hear an emergent Christian say, ‘I don’t want truth about Jesus Christ. I want Jesus! Don’t give me propositions about Jesus. Give me the person of Jesus!’ That sounds sweet and spiritual and appealing and passionate. And it is precisely that sort of thinking that sends people to hell! You can’t love Jesus Christ without loving propositional truths about him. If you do not embrace what Scripture says about Christ, the word ‘Christ’ can mean anything you want it to mean.
So let me ask a question: What Christ do you believe in? With what Jesus do you long for relationship? Is it the Jesus who is God in human flesh? That’s the doctrine, the propositional truth, of the Incarnation. Is it the Jesus who died as a sacrifice for sin, enduring God’s wrath for sinners and thereby obtaining forgiveness? That’s the doctrine, the propositional truth, of Atonement. Is it the Christ who rose from the dead? That’s the doctrine, the propositional truth, of Resurrection. Is it the Christ in whom by faith alone and through grace alone we are declared righteous and saved? That’s the doctrine, the propositional truth, of Justification.
Which Christ you believe and what you believe about him are not secondary questions. Is it the Christ of theological liberalism? Or the Christ of the cults? Perhaps you long for a relationship with the Christ of Islam. They believe in Jesus as a great prophet, beloved of God. But not until you assert in theological propositions biblical truths about Christ does your faith mean anything at all.
Reading their literature often leads me to wonder what emergents actually believe about the Bible. They typically avoid using words like inerrant, infallible, authoritative and revelatory, when describing the Scriptures. It’s one thing to insist on the beauty of biblical narrative and its liberating power, ‘but unless people are convinced that the Bible is authoritative, true, inspired, and the very words of God, over time they will read it less frequently, know it less fully, and trust it less surely’ (78).
Therefore, concludes DeYoung,
in our world of perpetual squishitude, why offer people more of what they already have – vague spirituality, uncertainty, and borderline interpretative relativism? Why not offer them something hard and old like the Law in which we delight, and dare to say and believe ‘Thus saith the Lord’? (85)
I want to go on record that I love doctrine! When I explore the theological complexities of the Incarnation of the Son of God, my heart is strangely warmed. When I think deeply about his death and how it propitiates the Father and redeems and saves and breaks the power of the enemy, I get goose bumps up and down my spine. When I reflect on the relationship between the human and divine in the one person of Christ Jesus, and then contrast and distance the orthodox view from that of heresies such as Arianism and Socinianism, I get positively giddy!
In fact, I can’t think of anything more important or crucial for all Christians individually and the church corporately than to take whatever steps are necessary to deepen and intensify our knowledge of God and the revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. To take this glorious truth, together with others as they are set forth in Scripture, and to formulate carefully worded statements of faith that identify what we call Protestant evangelical orthodoxy is one of the greatest joys I know as a Christian. And to differentiate these views from those that are outside the boundaries of biblical revelation, so that heterodoxy is seen as the soul-threatening, hell-deserving enemy which I believe it to be, is the responsibility of every Bible-believing Christian.
Do I believe that any statement of faith is impeccable, perfect in every affirmation and denial? No. We can never be comprehensive or infallible in our interpretation of the biblical text or in the theological conclusions we derive from it. Deep humility and a conscious awareness of our weaknesses and personal prejudices, together with a consistent dependence on the Holy Spirit and a readiness to alter our affirmations when they are shown by Scripture to be ill-conceived, must characterize all our theologizing. But theologize we must. Our eternal destiny hangs in the balance.
Human frailty and cultural influences notwithstanding, we must articulate as best we can what we believe are the foundational and non-negotiable truths of Holy Scripture. The Bible itself speaks unapologetically of ‘the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:26-27), and of ‘the standard of teaching’ to which we are committed (Romans 6:17), and of a ‘gospel’, deviation from which calls forth an eternal ‘anathema’ (Galatians 1:9), and of a ‘pattern’ of ‘sound words’ and the ‘good deposit’ that have been entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:13-14), and of ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3).
In case you hadn’t figured it out by now, that in itself is more than enough to put me at serious odds with many, if not most, in the emergent movement. I fully expect that if they were to read the previous four paragraphs I would be immediately branded as a cold and calculating rationalist (or modernist) who’s impervious to change, closed to conversation, who arrogantly thinks he’s got the unfathomable God figured out, freeze-dried, and packaged away (I’m drawing on the language of Brian McLaren). I doubt if there’s much I could say to convince them otherwise, so I won’t waste my time trying. But this does lead us into a brief discussion of the emergent resistance to a focus on propositional truth about the Son of God and suspicion of all things theological.
As noted above, a common refrain among emergents is, ‘Just give me Jesus!’ In-depth theological analyses and carefully articulated doctrinal formulations concerning the person and work of Christ (and a variety of other biblical truths) are viewed as hindrances to vital spiritual relationship not only with Jesus but also between Christians. The determination to identify biblical orthodoxy, so we are told, only serves to sterilize our otherwise fertile faith and to divide by creating boundaries that determine who’s’in’ and who’s ‘out’, who’s ‘orthodox’ and who’s ‘heterodox’.
A typical statement is this one by Erwin McManus (who’s actually less ’emergent’ than most):
The power of the gospel is the result of a person – Jesus Christ – not a message. The gospel is an event to be proclaimed, not a doctrine to be preserved. (108)
But as DeYoung and Kluck point out,
how is the gospel event we proclaim different than [sic] a message? And how is a message about Jesus – say, who He is and what He did on earth – different than [sic] doctrine? We can tell people about Jesus every day until He returns again, but without some doctrinal content filling up what we mean by Jesus and why He matters, we are just shouting slogans, not proclaiming any kind of intelligible gospel. (108)
It’s one thing to passionately proclaim, ‘It’s all about Jesus!’ But what is it about Jesus that we are supposed to be all about? It’s one thing to rant against creeds and religious rituals,
but once we say something about why Jesus is glorious and what His life was like and what it accomplished, aren’t we settling back into dogma and religion again? (108)
This is again related to the emergent distaste for refined theological statements and what evangelicals have traditionally referred to as ‘orthodoxy’ or right belief. As I read the New Testament it seems evident that the authors conceive of ‘orthopraxy’, or right behaviour, as flowing out of orthodoxy. The ethical imperative is always grounded in the theological indicative. One need only observe Paul’s comments in Romans 12:1 and Ephesians 4:1 as examples. Emergents, on the other hand, will often simply conflate the two while placing primary emphasis on right behaviour.
But we cannot afford to ignore the biblical emphasis on certain truths as foundational to all Christian living. As DeYoung and Kluck argue,
‘People go to hell for believing the wrong things’ (see Gal. 1:8). ‘People within the church should be corrected when they believe the wrong things’ (see Titus 1:9). And ‘People are sometimes to be kept out of your house for believing the wrong things’ (see 2 John 9-10; 112).
There simply is no gospel without theology, for
as soon as you say Jesus died and rose again for your sins according to the Scriptures, you have doctrine. You have a message about what happened in history and what it means. That’s theology. (113)
The authors are especially helpful in pointing out the emergent dislike for doctrinal boundaries. Statements of faith in which we articulate not only what we affirm but what we deny are rare in emergent churches. At most, they will cite their affirmation of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. But doctrinal affirmations, says Tony Jones, national coordinator of Emergent, are ‘a modernistic endeavor that I’m not the least bit interested in’ (117).
I must confess that when I visit a church or navigate to their website, that’s the first thing I look for. I want to know what boundaries they draw and why. I want to know if it is biblical Christianity for which they stand and whether truth is important. After reading Jones’s comments, DeYoung wonders, ‘Are there no doctrinal beliefs (besides believing in statements of faith) or ethical behaviors (besides undefined lovelessness) that put one outside the camp?’ (118) You may find this distasteful, but the fact remains that ‘Christianity cannot and does not exist without boundaries’ (118). There is much to which we say Yes theologically, but there is also much to which we must say No.
There are times in reading emergent literature that one wonders whether they have a concept of theological error and doctrinal falsehood. If theology is merely a dialogue and journey and conversation, but does not at any point reach a definitive and intelligible conclusion about what is true and false, on what grounds do we assure anyone of eternal salvation and others of eternal peril?
An excellent, as well as deeply disturbing, example of this tendency among emergents is the book by Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Talk of God. I hope to review this regrettable book in a subsequent article, but here I only take note of it as typical of the biblical and scepticism about ever knowing anything truly about God. Of course, he does have a few things to say about God, for ‘that which we cannot speak of,’ he concedes, ‘is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking’ (123). But when we talk about God we can never make him known. It is as ‘unknown’ that we ‘know’ him. Citing DeYoung, ‘we believe in God but remain dubious concerning what we believe about God, to the point that we disbelieve the God we also believe in, “holding atheism and theism together in the cradle of faith”‘ (123; holding atheism ‘in the cradle of faith’; hmmm, now there’s a thought). Thus, says DeYoung, in summarizing Rollins, ‘idolatry is not worshiping the wrong God but believing “that our ideas actually represent the way that God and the world really operate”‘ (123). So when we speak about God we aren’t really speaking of God but only of our understanding of God.
I keep wondering, am I missing something here? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes; we do see through a glass dimly; we do not fully understand God; we don’t know God as God knows Himself; our words can’t capture the essence of God. God is greater than we can conceive – but what about the 1,189 chapters in the Bible? Don’t they tell us lots of things about God that we are supposed to do more than doubt and not understand? Aren’t the Scriptures written so that we might believe and be sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see and even proclaim this faith to others? (123-24)
He finds it hard to believe, and include me here as well,
that the apostles went off into the world telling people about the God they couldn’t speak of and inviting the people to journey with them as they grew in their mutual un/knowing about the God they disbelieved in. (124)
Where does that leave us? Again, I can do no better than quote DeYoung at some length:
Young people will give their lives for an exclamation point, but they will not give their lives for a question mark, not for very long anyway. Once the protest runs out and the emerging church has its own blogdom, and conferences, and church networks, and book deals, there will be no exclamation point, and all that’s left will be ethical intentions and passionate appeals for kingdom living. This will not sustain a movement – the protest will for a while, but once that’s gone there will be no great vision of God, no urgent proclamation of salvation, no eternal judgment or reward at stake, just a call to live rightly and love one another. That message will sell on Oprah, Larry King, and at the Oscars, but it won’t sustain and propel a gospel-driven church, because it isn’t the gospel. (127-28)
In Chapter Seven, DeYoung sets his aim on the emergent perspective on modernism and postmodernism. I suspect that many of you will find that a bit tedious, and I can understand why.
What is of special interest in this chapter, however, is DeYoung’s excellent discussion of the role of preaching, both in the emergent and non-emergent world. With tongue firmly planted in his cheek, he has labelled this section, ‘Dialogue the Word, Timothy!’, an obvious reference to Paul’s famous exhortation in 2 Timothy 4:2.
DeYoung reminds us of Paul’s tireless exhortation to his young disciples that they teach and preach and rebuke and encourage others, and that they guard themselves and the flock of God against false doctrine (see 1 Tim. 4:6, 11, 13; 5:17, 2 Tim. 2:1-5, Titus 1:9). These texts notwithstanding, ‘many in the emerging church lament the central place preaching has received in Protestant worship services’ (155). Actually, the objection is less about preaching and more the style or manner in which it is engaged. It is the notion of a ministerial monologue in which one ordained Christian speaks a message to a congregation of unordained, passive listeners that evokes their negative response.
The purpose of preaching, they tell us, is not informational but transformational. Communal communication, in which all are invited to somehow participate, is needed in today’s world. Uni-directional, discursive sermons, delivered by seminary trained pastors, is a reflection of an Enlightenment mentality that is out of touch with the postmodern, image-driven, participatory culture of our day.
But DeYoung is right to point out a number of false dichotomies that lie beneath this criticism, namely,
that discursive communication is only interested in information and not formation, that it is a mere lecture isolated from family and community, and that it is purely pedagogical instead of celebrative. This is not helpful. We must refuse false dichotomies that force a wedge between head and heart, rationality and faith, truth and experience. (156)
I’m no big fan of the Enlightenment either, but it is simply wrong to attribute every hint of linear thinking, propositional preaching, or discursive communication to some modern Enlightenment corruption. (156)
And he proceeds in the next few pages to give copious counter-examples of such to the emergent claim.
I think DeYoung is right when he contends that ‘much of the emergent disdain for preaching is really an uneasiness about authority and control’ (159). But he also argues that
the decline in preaching goes hand in hand with a lost confidence in the importance of truth claims. Preaching presupposes there is a message that must be proclaimed and believed. The very act of verbal proclamation by one man to God’s people assumes that there is a word from God that can be ascertained, understood, and meaningfully communicated. This is what is being objected to in preaching, not simply the specter of modernism. (159)
And may I add to this that what may be driving much of the emergent disdain for linear, discursive preaching is their own regrettable experience of having been raised in churches where the proclamation often turned to legalistic oppression in which little if any voice was given to the congregation as a whole. No one, I hope, would endorse the insensitive authoritarianism that has characterized much of the preaching in western fundamentalism. But the abuses of this otherwise sacred ministry are no excuse to discard the practice or to ignore the biblical commands that we teach and preach the Word.
Following a brief analysis of Rob Bell’s misuse of (Jewish) history (as well as comments on the same in the writings of Doug Pagitt and Brian McLaren, see pp. 160-65), DeYoung closes this chapter by arguing that many emergents are equally as shaped by modernism as those they criticize. In fact, when one looks carefully at some of the distinctive ideas and emphases of emergent authors it is difficult to differentiate their concerns from those of nineteenth-century theological liberalism. Says DeYoung:
The preference for ethics over doctrine, the reservations about God’s wrath and judgment, the perceived need to retranslate the Christian faith for a new time, the devaluing of propositional truths, the chastisement of firm doctrinal boundaries, the understanding of missions as social compassion and not conversion – these are all impulses of the modern world. So are the broad tolerance of general religious sentiment that is lacking in specificity and definition, the unwillingness to assert the Bible’s complete truthfulness, the downplaying of original sin, and the direct appeals to bettering the world apart from the call to repent and be born again. (166)
A brief but passionate comment is in order about one item that appears in Chapter Eight (much of which is given to a discussion of Peter Rollins’ book).
If there is one undeniable common link between the theological liberalism of the last 150-175 years and contemporary emergent thought, it is the disinclination to discuss (if not an outright denial of the existence of) hell. Many emergent believers, Brian McLaren being chief and most outspoken among them, aren’t preoccupied with hell. They dislike the way this biblical reality compels them to speak of ‘who’s in’ and ‘who’s out’. They feel it requires an act of discernment and judgment that only the arrogant and self-assured can make.
Let me be brutally honest and forthright: I am unapologetically preoccupied with hell, and for two simple reasons. First, the Bible says it is quite real, and second, the Bible says people are going there. I lie awake at night thinking about ‘who’s in’ and ‘who’s out’. I’m utterly and unashamedly obsessed with hell because I believe it is real, and because there are people I know and love who persist in their rejection of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and who, apart from repentance and faith in him, will spend eternity there.
That’s offensive language. But it’s biblical language. And I’m obligated to be biblical even if it offends. One simply cannot affirm any concept of biblical authority and deny that it speaks often of those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’. The language it uses is of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46), the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:36-43), believers and unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:22), the righteous and the wicked (Malachi 3:18), those ‘who are being saved’ and those ‘who are perishing’ (2 Cor. 2:15), those who receive the crown of life as over against those who suffer the second death (Rev.2:10-11), and those who are granted access to the New Jerusalem and those who ‘will never enter it’ (Rev. 20:22-27).
One must never read such texts or ponder their meaning with anything other than fear and trembling and a realization that if one is ‘in’ it is altogether of sovereign grace and mercy shown unto otherwise hell-deserving sinners. To avoid, diminish, or, God forbid, deny such texts and the eternal destinies they affirm is the epitome of selfish disdain and lack of concern for lost souls. Either one is branded with the name of the Lamb or the mark of the Beast (Rev. 13:11-14:5) and our approach to life and ministry and preaching and the Christian faith as a whole must be governed by that inescapable reality.
What would have become of countless native Americans had David Brainerd (1718-47) not been preoccupied and obsessed with who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’? I dare say he would not have written in his diary, on Monday, April 19, 1742, these words of love and committment to their eternal welfare:
God enabled me so to agonize in prayer, that I was quite wet with sweat, though in the shade, and the wind cool. My soul was drawn out very much for the world; I grasped for multitudes of souls.4
On the next day, Brainerd wrote:
I think my soul was never so drawn out in intercession for others as it has been this night. Had a most fervent wrestle with the Lord tonight for my enemies.5
I praise God for people like David Brainerd and William Carey and Lottie Moon and Hudson Taylor and countless others who refused to turn a blind eye to the reality of eternal punishment as if to do so were a badge of ‘epistemological humility’. I praise God for those who care deeply for lost souls and are willing to speak the truth, harsh and offensive though it be, that others might have eternal life.
This isn’t the last time the subject of heaven and hell is addressed in this book. It appears again in Chapter Nine, together with a discussion of other basic biblical truths that many in the emergent movement either misunderstand or reject outright.
In Chapter Nine, DeYoung and Kluck turn their attention to a number of emphases within emergent Christianity that they believe are deviations from biblical orthodoxy (a focus, by the way, that virtually all emergents would contend is the very reason why we need emergent Christians; there are far too many ‘fundamentalists’ like DeYoung, Kluck, and Storms who insist on analyzing others’ theological positions to determine if they’re orthodox or not!).
They begin with the emergent focus on the Kingdom of God and point out that it isn’t what emergents affirm about the kingdom that is disturbing but what they omit or perhaps even deny. Yes, the kingdom is, at least to some extent, the announcement that God has inaugurated in Christ Jesus his plan for bringing ultimate peace, justice and compassion on the earth. It is, to some extent, a ‘this worldly’ revolution of love and reconciliation to which we have all been summoned. DeYoung notes, in paraphrasing the emergent view,
It is a call to join the network of God that breaks down the walls of racism, nationalism, and ecological harm. The kingdom of God is like a dance of love, vitality, harmony, and celebration. (184; these metaphors and descriptions, says DeYoung, are taken from McLaren’s book, The Secret Message of Jesus, 138-48).
Thus, according to emergent Christianity, the message of the kingdom in the ministry of Jesus was not primarily about certain doctrines to believe but about a manner and style of life to live. Citing McLaren,
the kingdom of God . . . is a revolutionary, counter-cultural movement – proclaiming a ceaseless rebellion against the tyrannical trinity of money, sex, and power. (184)
Or again, according to McLaren, the message of God’s grace and the forgiveness of sins through the cross work of Christ is, at best, only
a footnote to a gospel that is much richer, grander, and more alive, a gospel that calls you to become a disciple and to disciple others, in authentic community, for the good of the world. (The Church in Emerging Culture, 215).
A footnote to the gospel? Hmmm.
The authors of this book are not protesting against this understanding of the kingdom, unless, of course, the kingdom is reduced to little more ‘than a plan for world peace’ (184). What disturbs them is the absence of truly good news in this message.
Our cursed world needs more than a plan for refurbished morals. It needs a Savior because it is so full of sinners. I just cannot understand how the gospel as a call to become a disciple for the good of the world is richer, grander, and more alive than a gospel that announces God’s grace, forgiveness, and the free gift of salvation. (186)
DeYoung is understandably befuddled by a ‘gospel’ that announces no news of God’s redemptive work on our behalf and ignores the call of Christ to Nicodemus that one ‘must be born again’ (John 3:3). Do emergents really believe in original sin and the need for divine mercy and the existence of hell? DeYoung says,
I understand the emergent concern about living rightly in this life. That was a concern of Jesus. But why are heaven and hell as eternal destinations so routinely marginalized in emergent books? If heaven and hell are real and endure forever, as Jesus believed them to be, they ought to shape everything we do during our short time on earth. (186)
Now, I’m no prophet, but I think I know the answer to DeYoung’s question. I think I know why hell plays such a minimal role in the emergent understanding of the ‘kingdom of God’ and the ‘gospel’. Although no emergent author has yet explicitly endorsed universalism (although some see it in Spencer Burke’s book, A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity; I happily confess to not having read it), I suspect that it is lurking quietly beneath the surface of much of what they believe. In fact, I will make a prediction. Within three or four years, several prominent emergent church authors will ‘come out of the closet’ and admit they embrace salvific universalism. Given what appears to be the denial of original sin by Steven Chalke (The Lost Message of Jesus, 67) and the reinterpretation of hell by Brian McLaren (The Last Word and the Word after That) and the rejection of wrath as an essential attribute of the divine nature and the almost uniform dismissal of penal substitutionary atonement as ‘cosmic child abuse’ and the tendency to question whether conscious faith in Christ alone is essential for salvation, what other possible pathway can they walk? If man is not by nature wicked and God does not by nature require the satisfaction of his wrath in the atoning sacrifice of Christ and hell is little more than what we create for ourselves on earth, what stands in the way of affirming that all mankind will eventually be saved?
The authors are equally concerned that the kingdom of God among emergents ‘often ends up sounding largely political’ (189). Although there may well be proponents of the political right among emergent church leaders, ‘it is undeniable that left-wing politics is a common thread running throughout the emergent literature’ (189). God ‘may not be a Republican or a Democrat, but from reading the emergent literature, it sure seems like He votes Democrat’ (189).
I must say that I’m less concerned with this point than I am with the theological issues we’ve addressed. But I do agree with DeYoung and Kluck when they argue that the problem is not in working to eliminate injustice (who would ever suggest that it is), but rather
in thinking that this is the main business of the church as church . . . [W]hen the church’s business is mainly political and its unifying creeds are political instead of doctrinal, the church and state overlap until the church becomes redundant. (190)
DeYoung then turns his attention to what has become virtually the standard rejection by emergent believers of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ. I will forego expanding on this point here, since I’ve addressed it at great length in my review of a book that everyone should read (Pierced for our Transgressions; see the review at my website under Recommended, Book Reviews6).
As I’ve previously noted, emergent leaders have also
practiced a studied agnosticism about hell and God’s wrath, deliberately avoiding the topic in sermons or writing, because, they say, it’s not our business who is there – if anyone is there at all (196).
I, on the other hand, think it is precisely our business and our ministry. If, as the apostle Paul says, people are of two and only two groups, ‘those who are being saved’ and ‘those who are perishing’ (2 Cor. 2:15), the determining factor being their response to the gospel of God in Christ Jesus that we have been called to proclaim, how dare we justify our contempt for their eternal welfare by saying it is ‘not our business’?
The final concern in this chapter is the tendency among emergents to avoid the suggestion that conscious faith in Jesus Christ alone is the pathway to eternal life. Their professed admiration for non-Christian religions and their reluctance to pronounce the unrepentant and unbelieving as hell bound is of great concern. DeYoung writes,
I hope I am wrong, but I can find no indication in McLaren’s writings that belief in Jesus as the Christ and the unique Son of God is necessary for entrance into heaven or the kingdom. (202)
The early church, write DeYoung and Kluck,
was important because it was intolerable, and it was intolerable because it was intolerant. Not socially intolerant or coldhearted or obnoxiously abrasive, but intolerant of any salvation but the cross, any God but theirs, and any Lord but Christ. (204)
Following two short and very insightful chapters by Kluck on Rob Bell (Chapter 10) and Tony Jones (Chapter Eleven), the book concludes with a call to emergent churches everywhere to reconsider the principles and truths spoken by Jesus to the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3. In a word,
emergent Christians need to catch Jesus’ broader vision for the church – His vision for a church that is intolerant of error, maintains moral boundaries, promotes doctrinal integrity, stands strong in times of trial, remains vibrant in times of prosperity, believes in certain judgment and certain reward, even as it engages the culture, reaches out, loves, and serves. (248)
What we need most, say DeYoung and Kluck, is the knowledge of a God who is holy and righteous and loving and all-powerful and sovereign and merciful, who has acted in history through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to deliver spiritually dead and morally depraved sinners from eternal death that they might live in ever-increasing enjoyment of him to his everlasting glory.
linear, dogmatic, or hopelessly otherworldly, but it’s what Christians have held onto for millennia as their only comfort in life and in death. And by God’s grace such an articulation of the Christian message will emerge and reemerge, unapologetically and unhesitatingly, as front and center in all our churches. (253)
So, please go purchase and read this book. Please.
- Phil Johnson’s review can be found here.
- Dr Sam Storms is the founder of Enjoying God Ministries, based in Kansas City, www.enjoyinggodministries.com.
- The first of this series of seven articles on Don Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications can be found here.
- The Diary & Journal of David Brainerd (Banner of Truth, 2007) p 42.
- www.samstorms.com. See also the article on the Banner website here.
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