Authors note: This is the third installment of a four part series on the Emergent Church. To read the first installment, click here.
The Emergent churches slippery ideas about propositional truth and theology in process lead to the idea that God is practically unknowable. This is true because for Emergents, any attempt to put God into language is futile. “Since language is inherently ambiguous in its attempts to describe all external, abstract realities, and therefore unable to express unequivocal truth, how can we refer to any truth as absolute” (Tomlinson 102)? Because only God is absolute, words cannot be (Bell 23). Later in Velvet Elvis, Bell writes that language fails because the Christian faith is mysterious, and it is idolatry to put God into words definitively (32). These ideas however did not stop Bell from writing that “God has no shape or form” (23). Is Bell committing idolatry in saying this? Lack of belief in definitive language has not stopped Bell from writing an entire book concerning what he believes the Bible and Christianity are all about (or, rather, what they are not about).
Ideology, according to Peter Rollins, is actually idolatry. Ideology is understood as making God conceptually evident (Rollins 12). The Bible is contradictory, fractured, and full of variances (Rollins 13). According to Rollins, the Bible is so vibrant, so dynamic in nature, so full of different genres of writing that it is simply a mixture of different voices that cannot be harmonized. “…any systematic attempt to master the text [is] both violent and irredeemably impossible” (Rollins 13). McLaren, like Rollins, disdains the idea of systematic theology:
“At the heart of the theological project in the late modern world was the assumption that that one could and should reduce all revealed truth into propositions and organize those propositions into an outline that exhaustively contains and serves as the best vehicle for truth” (McLaren 152).
Christian words like omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient are, for McLaren, simply “theological” jargon (152).
Emergent writers dislike certain words that conservative Protestants use about the Bible; words like inerrancy, objective, and absolute (McLaren 164). The implication of the Bible making no claim of inerrancy about itself, is that it is not inerrant (Tomlinson 110). On the more liberal (for lack of a better term) side of the Emergent conversation, Kester Brewin writes that the Old Testament is about people getting to know God and Israel’s spiritual maturity (62). This is apparently Brewin’s explanation for how the God of the Old Testament can be compassionate, inclusive, and gracious, as well as a God who desires plunder and slaughter (62). It was not God’s problem, but rather the God’s people’s ever growing knowledge of him and their growth in spiritual maturity.
Throughout church history, theologians have constantly said that God is indeed incomprehensible. God is inexhaustible, the finite cannot encompass his infinity, and he is beyond human imagining. Isaiah 55:8-9 states,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
The Christian is faced with a dilemma. How much can one claim to know about God? Christians are overcome, like David, with God’s loving knowledge of everything they do and exclaim with the Psalmist, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139: 6). No Christian can count the thoughts of God: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you” (Psalm 139:17-18). “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145:3). God’s understanding is beyond measure (Psalm 145:4-5). “Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty” (Job 11:7)?
Taking all these passages into account, one might think that Emergent writers are on to something. Can Christian’s say that they know God with him being so high and far above them? The answer is explicated in Romans 11:33-36 which says:
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
At first glance, this passage seems to reflect what all the other passages were saying above. But one is prompted to ask the question, what led Paul to pen this doxology? The answer lies in all the things that Paul set forth throughout the entire book of Romans before hand, especially the explication of God’s redeeming work to the Gentiles. So what brought Paul to extol the unsearchable riches and wisdom of God was based on what had been revealed to Paul. Elsewhere, Paul refers to this message as the secret of the gospel, or the “[secret] of Christ” (Ephesians 3:4). In striking language, Paul says that this “…[secret] was made known to me by revelation…” (Ephesians 3:3 emphasis mine). A secret is something that is kept hidden, but Paul says that it has been made known to him. Apparently this Apostle of Christ is as arrogant as the evangelical Christians who claim that they know the things of God! What is the secret that was made known to Paul? “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). It was Paul’s desire that Christians would, “…have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18). How is this possible? How can one have the strength to know that which is unsearchable and that which surpasses knowledge? Because Christians have been let in on the wonderful plans and secrets of God laid out in Christ Jesus for their salvation!
Christians have been given the Spirit of God! In another letter of Paul, perhaps something the Emergent writers have missed, Paul says, “But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7). “…these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything even the depths of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10). In the next verses, Paul outlines the reasons that Christians can now comprehend the thoughts of God:
“For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:11-13).
This is the key the Emergent church has missed. Despite the fact that they love mystery, paradox, and the mystical/poetical, they seem to miss the work of the Spirit who imparts real spiritual wisdom and brings believers into a relationship with God, so that Christians experience him by the Spirit, and so they understand the things given to them by God. Paul clearly spells out that Christians have the Spirit who is given from God, and so understand those things given them by God.
The Emergent arguments about language defy God’s immanence, his ever present-ness. If putting God into definitive words equals idolatry, then God himself is idolatrous, for he is the one who told the Moses, “And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33.19). While Kester Brewin spells out his ideas about humankind’s spiritual maturation, Peter has a different idea about what we can say about the Old Testament prophecies. Though Peter and the other apostles had heard the voice from heaven confirming that Christ was the son of God (another example of God’s use of human language), he says something incredibly striking: “And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19 emphasis mine). Not only were the Old Testament prophecies useful in confirmation of faith, but they were more sure. “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). In direct contradiction to Brewin’s statements that the Old Testament Scriptures are all about mankind’s getting to know God, Peter writes, “…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20).
Words that Protestants use to describe the Bible are simply in relation to who they believe God is, namely inerrant, absolute, and objective. If “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), then certainly it would contain no errors and present objective truth, because what proceeds from God’s mouth can be no less! Evangelicals believe he has the ability to speak in these ways, and that he does so clearly. The logical consequence of saying the Bible is not objective and inerrant is to say that God makes errors, and cannot express himself in objective ways. Are words like omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent really theological jargon, or do they actually express biblical truth? The Bible presents God as everywhere present (Psalm 139:8), as perfect in knowledge (Job 37:16), and as all powerful (Ephesians 1:19).
Rollins says that any systematic attempt to harmonize the texts is impossible. But ff Rollins cares about the Jesus of the Bible he should care about “it is written” statement. He should care about the Jesus who used the Bible to defend himself against the temptation by Satan (Matthew 4). He should love the Jesus who said to the disciples on the Emmaus Road:
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).
Jesus is the hermeneutical key to the truth found in the Old Testament. Evangelicals firmly believe that we have received much of this teaching through the writings of the Apostles, indeed, all things necessary for salvation and for the equipping of good works.
Reformed theologians like Bavinck and Michael Horton have held that all human knowledge of God is analogical, that is, based on analogy. At the same time that they have said this, however, they have also held that that knowledge is not wrong knowledge. All knowledge of God is incomplete, but that does not mean that people do not know truly, just not in totality.