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New Horizons

Christianity and the Emergent Church

Danny E. Olinger

In her best-selling book, The Great Emergent, Phyllis Tickle argues that a sweeping change is occurring in Christianity. Much like the Protestant Reformation, the church is cleaning out her attic, and what will remain is the emergent church.

According to Tickle, the Luther-like leader of the great emergent is Brian McLaren, and his 2005 book, A Generous Orthodoxy, is the ninety-five theses of the movement. McLaren presents a new way for the church that avoids the pitfalls of so-called conservative dogmatics and liberal indifference. McLaren's goal is to deconstruct Christianity and to rebuild it in a fashion amenable to our postmodern culture—a kinder, less heaven-looking, more socially transforming faith. The church must lower its voice about absolute truth and certainty and follow the example of Jesus in dealing with man's most pressing problems (hunger, climate change, communicable diseases, consumerism).

President-elect Obama, with his post-partisan message, has shown the way forward for a new day in politics; now the church must do likewise in religion. Fervently supporting Obama, McLaren wrote on his blog after the election, "Congratulations, America! Thanks to everyone who had the courage to vote for change over entrenchment, hope over fear, diversity over homogeneity, and reconciliation over division."

What applies to politics applies to the church for McLaren. To move past its entrenchment, the church must drop its dogmatic tone and cease proclaiming doctrines that are fearful (heaven/hell) or abusive (substitutionary atonement). The church must embrace all, regardless of belief (Arminian/Calvinist) or lifestyle (homosexuality). The church must rid itself of certainty (inerrant Bible) and self-imposed boundaries (confessions), which have caused division and disunity. The good news is that there are now many Christians doing this.

Regardless of whether you agree with McLaren's assessment of the changes in American politics, you must ask yourself if this same kind of movement in Christianity is good news. Good news really centers in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for sinners. "Christ crucified" is the message the church must proclaim if it is to be a faithful witness bringing good news to a fallen and dying world.

This new movement, the emergent, actually combines aspects of two older theologies that stood opposite Christianity: the liberalism of J. Gresham Machen's day and the neo-orthodoxy of Cornelius Van Til's day.

Christianity and Liberalism

Liberalism in Machen's day was predicated on adapting Christianity to modern thought. Its answer to the apparent tensions between faith and science was to see Christianity primarily supplying a moral life, which learning could only enhance. Emergents are more interested in contemporary sensibility than intellectual respectability, but they share with liberals the goal of establishing a righteous kingdom on earth through social transformation. Emergents and liberals share a common hermeneutic, namely, that Christianity is about deeds, not creeds.

McLaren repeatedly proclaims that the gospel is the way of Jesus. Ethics comes first, and then doctrine. McLaren says of liberal Protestants who emphasize deeds and not creeds, "I applaud their desire to live out the meaning of miracle stories even when they don't believe the stories really happened as written" (A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 61).

J. Gresham Machen, in Christianity and Liberalism, maintained that Christianity was about creeds and deeds, doctrine as well as life. Machen stated, "It will be said, Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. The assertion is often made, and it has an appearance of godliness. But it is radically false" (p. 19). Instead, Christianity is a life based upon a message—"Christ died for our sins." Machen explained that "Christ died" is history, and that "Christ died for our sins" is doctrine. Without history and doctrine joined in an indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.

Machen also saw liberalism separating history from faith when it maintained that faith can exist despite historical inaccuracy and fabrication in Scripture. Tickle indicates this is the position of the emergent. She writes, "An emergent, in observing heated debates or impassioned conversations about the factualness of the Virgin birth, for example, can truly be puzzled. For him or her, the whole ‘problem' is just not ‘there' in any distinguishable or real sense. For the emergent, as he or she will be quick to say, the Virgin birth is so beautiful that it has to be true, whether it happened or not" (p. 149).

The Authority of Scripture

McLaren believes that modernity and Protestantism are linked, and that Reformed theology is the best theological system in modernity. The end of modernity, however, spells the end of any theological tradition that depends upon the authority of Scripture as its foundation.

Confessional Protestants, McLaren argues, put their confidence in an error-free Bible. The doctrine of inerrancy, however, is a red herring because the Bible is about following Jesus as a way of life, not about truth claims. The Christian life is a journey in which the believer can know God, but that knowledge cannot be equated with certainty. McLaren prefers to speak of "inherency," for, he says, the Bible only contains the Word of God.

McLaren is very careful in his writings not to say much more about Scripture than that he loves the Bible and that Christians have always been blessed by using it with the goal of becoming good people who, in following Jesus' example, do good works in God's good world. It appears that McLaren is applying the advice that he once received from the novelist Walker Percy. Percy wrote to McLaren, then a college English instructor, "The religious writer must always cover his tracts." McLaren states that he never knew if Percy's malapropism was intentional or not, but "whether one is writing for a religious audience or a nonreligious one, there are times when indirection is the best strategy" (Dan Knauss, interview with McLaren, at www.newpantagruel.com, vol. 2, issue 3).

The way of indirection is to profess a love for the Bible, and yet maintain that no outside authority is larger than one's personal experience. McLaren's belief is that meaning is located, not in the text, but in the reader. Interpretation of the Bible reveals what a particular person believes, not what the Bible teaches. The authority of the Word, then, is not found in the words of Scripture. Historically, this view is related to neo-orthodoxy's doctrine of Scripture.

The neo-orthodox position on Scripture in Van Til's day was that the Bible is not the Word of God, but a witness to the Word of God that is transhistorical. The Word of God, then, is not to be identified with the words of Scripture. Rather, Scripture becomes the Word of God as God makes himself known to the one who reads it in faith. Revelation cannot be the written word; it is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

In Reformed theology, however, the Bible is the Word of God, and the authority of Scripture is grounded in the person of God himself. It doesn't depend for its authority upon any man or church. Scripture is self-authenticating, the judge of all controversies, and its own interpreter.

Christ writes me a letter. What is the letter? The letter is Scripture, which focuses on Christ's redemption from sin. Scripture constitutes the climax of the redemptive work of God through Christ and his Spirit. Van Til, then, places certainty in God himself, the self-attesting God of Scripture.

Van Til believed that the neo-orthodox position was just liberalism in new dress. One key difference was that it did not offend openly, as liberalism did. Liberalism poured milk out of a bottle and substituted polluted water, and then neo-orthodoxy gave the polluted water the color of milk.

Christianity and the Emergent

Tickle and McLaren openly declare that the emergent church is playing a different tune than that of the historic church. What they do not state, however, is the bias of the tune. It does not split the difference between confessional Protestantism and liberalism. Rather, it carries strong notes of liberalism and neo-orthodoxy, announcing that man can solve the world's problems through moral effort, combined with an attack upon the authority of Scripture.

But, knowing that modern culture is plagued by doubt over the certainty of faith, the emergent has bathed its tune in the language of humility in order to attract a hearing. But it is a false humility. Ambivalence about truth and the work of God in history is not biblical humility. Biblical humility submits to the living God and to his Word. True humility recognizes that man's interpretation is fallible, but that the Bible, God's interpretation of his activity in accomplishing redemption, is perfect. Our confidence is in our God and in his revelation to us, and our hope is in the atoning work of his Son, Jesus Christ, in history. This mighty act of God in Christ, what Machen called "the triumphant indicative," is the good news of the Bible that the true church believes and preaches.

Following the lead of Machen and Van Til, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church throughout its history has stood against the liberal and neo-orthodox juggernaut. It appears that the same stand is now necessary against the emergent.

The author is the editor of New Horizons. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2009.

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