Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Emergent Church (Part 2)

Author's Note: This is the second portion of a four section series. To read the first installment, click here.         

         “Few things are so universally criticized in the emerging church as propositions” (Deyoung, Kluck 71). This is evidently true for many Emergent writers. “Christians,” writes McLaren, “do not build cathedrals of stone and glass as in the Middle Ages, but rather conceptual cathedrals of proposition and argument” (151). Just as cathedrals today are looked at as historical artifacts, so too, in McLaren’s mind, the systematic theologies of the present day will become obsolete in time (152). Rob Bell, in his book Velvet Elvis, compares doctrines to the springs of a trampoline. The springs of the trampoline are not the point of Christianity, but rather the things that propel us higher into an experience of God (Bell 22). He goes on to say that the trinity is one such spring in the trampoline. “It is a spring,” writes Bell, and people jumped for thousands of years without it. It was added later. We can take it out and examine it. Discuss it, probe it, question it” (22). According to Kester Brewin, “God waits, holds moments, and refuses to fix interpretations or draw hard lines” (67). Spencer Burke even writes that Martin Luther believed that assenting to specific doctrines was beside the point (88). While this is true in part, Luther held an immense respect for doctrinal statements! Burke’s statement is an obvious falsification of what the Reformer actually believed, for example, about justification by faith alone. In any case, it is apparent in reading emergent literature that no statement of propositional truth should be taken for granted.

            The problem is that the Bible is full of propositions and propositional truth that readers are called to either accept or reject. Certainly there is poetry and mystery and portions of Scripture that are difficult to understand. But when Psalm 5.4 says, “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you,” certainly this is something understandable and something Christians are called to believe in. It seems the real issue with Emergent leaders is not propositional truth, for they employ it themselves consistently. Saying that propositional truth is ambiguous at best because language is symbolic is itself a proposition. The statement becomes self-referentially incoherent. For Bell, “The Bible has the authority it does only because it contains stories about people interacting with the God who has all authority” (65). This sounds like a proposition. The Emergent idea of truth and knowledge simply crumbles on itself.
             Tomlinson, however, qualifies propositions in this way:
“God does reveal himself through the literal meaning of verbal propositions, words and sentences, semantics or syntax, but through their symbolic meaning. The fact that the Bible is filled with propositions, and that we legitimately continue to struggle to formulate words that express divine truth, whether in creeds, systematic theology, or sermons, should not fool us into thinking these words are in and of themselves that truth” (114, emphasis mine).

It is here that the orthodox Christian must strongly disagree. The written Word is not God, and yet one must distinguish that there is no separation between himself and his word. If the Bible is breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16) and one believes that God is perfect, his word must also be indelibly perfect. The orthodox view is that God is perfectly capable of communicating to his people, which is the primary issue. Tomlinson writes, “Our primary attention, and our faith-response to the Bible, is not merely to words, but to the One who is sacramentally revealed through the words” (115). Tomlinson has set his stage to define language as indefinite and imprecise when he writes next, “Being symbolic, however, the truth in the words must also be understood as ambiguous and in need of constant reinterpretation” (115). But Acts 4:12 states, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” This is a straightforward proposition. Salvation can be found in none other than Jesus Christ. That is, he is the narrow gate, “…the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). No one can come to know the Father save through him. Why must these statements be constantly reinterpreted when the meaning is clear? The Bible’s teaching is that God’s word is truth (John 17:17). The Spirit works through the word so it never returns empty, meaning that it always accomplishes all its purposes.

            Since many Emergent leaders desire to be more compassionate and loving like Christ (a very good and respectable thing!), perhaps they should also utilize propositional truth in the way that Jesus did. Only a cursory reading of the gospels shows that Jesus used many propositions. In John 4, when Jesus is speaking to the serial divorcee of Samaria, she tells him that she knows the Messiah is coming. Jesus tells her that he is that the one speaking to her is that one (John 4:26). This is a proposition. Jesus is clearly saying that he is the Messiah. The fact that Jesus is the Messiah is not argued in Emergent church circles. A legitimate question arises: Why not? If all truth statements and propositions are ambiguous, then Jesus saying that he is the Messiah should also be ambiguous. So the problem for Emergents is not propositional truth but rather the propositional truth they dislike. While many Emergent leaders desire to be more like Christ, they say contradictory statements like this one: “We do not possess truth or seek to correct the truths of others, but we seek to live faithfully in light of the truth of God in Jesus Christ” (Ward 179). Here lies another contradiction. Some Emergents, though desiring to be like Christ, do not intend to correct the truths of others. But Jesus was constantly doing this in the Scriptures with the Pharisees and the disciples alike. The “truths of others” may have nothing to do with the truth of Jesus Christ. Paul commissioned Timothy to “…preach the word; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). Rebuking implies the idea of correcting error.

            The Emergent idea of the Christian faith is different than that of the Scriptures. One can sense the anxiety in Jude’s voice when he writes in the third verse of his little letter, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (emphasis mine). Paul warned Timothy that people, “…[would] not always endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they [would] accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and [would] turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). For Paul, there was such a thing as sound teaching and there would be no doubt that people would turn from listening to the truth. Paul elsewhere warns Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).  Timothy would save his hearers by keeping watch on himself and on the teaching. Rollins idea offers quite the opposite when he writes, “…the emerging community is in a unique place to embrace a type of communication that opens up thought by asking questions and celebrating complexity” (43). Instead of the proliferation of the teaching of the gospel, the church is left with only questions. Instead of the church of the living God being “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), Rollins says, “For too long the church has been seen as an oasis in the desert – offering water to those who are thirsty. In contrast, the emerging community appears more as a desert in the oasis of life, offering silence, space and desolation amidst the sickly nourishment of Western capitalism” (44-45). Rollins poses this as true nourishment, as opposed to the Jesus of lifeless propositionalism found in evangelical churches. But a friendship with an earthly friend cannot be boiled down into relationship without proposition. In order to build a friendship, there are many things one must know about that person. Perhaps they get uncomfortable in crowds, perhaps they like golf, and perhaps they believe that Jesus is the Son of God. All these things are inherent to knowing who a person is. And Jesus is a person, so the same applies to him. In order to truly love him, one must also love what he said. Propositions are the fuel of love.

            But Jesus sought to do the opposite of what Rollins is proclaiming. Jesus had to go to Samaria (John 4:4). He had to tell the woman of Samaria that he offered something no one else could offer. “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). Jesus was interested not in questioning or celebrating complexity. Rather, he was interested in giving the truth, himself, away. Those who believe in Jesus will never thirst (John 6:35). 

        When Jesus feeds the five thousand in the gospel of Mark, he tells the disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while” (Mark 6:30). So the disciples leave in a boat and go to the desolate place. When they get ashore, Jesus sees a crowd and has compassion on them, seeing that they are “…like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). It is in this desolate place that he feeds them. In the next section the disciples are caught in a storm, and Jesus sees them from the land. He walks towards them on the water. “And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:51-52). Rollins seems to be struggling in the same way the disciples were. He does not understand about Jesus who said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger…” (John 6:35). “Whoever has seen [Jesus] has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Emergents seek to provide the Jesus unfettered from the current state of Christianity in the west, but ride the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. Rollins has swung down the path to the point of least common denominator—love. The problem is, in the Emergent description, we have no grounds for knowing what that love means. 

Read the next installment here.

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