Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Emergent Church Movement and Arianism

For the uninitiated, the Emergent Church movement is a recent development among a typically younger set of pastors and Christians that takes a hard look at the shape of the Church at large in light of the Postmodern world we seem to live in today. There are a lot of resources out there on the web which document this movement in large part because the leaders, and many of the devotees, are very tech savvy.

In recent days I have run across a lot of reading material and writing fodder concerning the Emergent Church (EC) movement, and I hope to clarify many of my thoughts as time goes on in this blog, but at the moment, I would like to address some doctrinal issues I ran across on a popular EC web site/weblog. The site is called, in a very postmodern nod to antiauthoritarian communalism, Opensourcetheology.net. The idea behind the site is pretty obvious-it exists to be a kind of community sounding board for theological issues. That is a noble goal, and I have a lot of fun with things like that. But when that kind of open discussion ideal is combined with the postmodern distaste for historical authority, current Orthodoxy, and “Westernism” in general, what results is sometimes pretty muddled.

For instance, take a recent discussion on the site regarding the possible similarities between EC and Arianism. The title of the blog is “Is the emerging church the new Arianiasm?”

Before I dive into the discussion specifically, I want to make a point or two about the EC movement in general. Like almost all movements within the Church it can’t be (and I don’t think it is) all rotten. It hopes to reach a new breed of person-the Postmodern-by thinking of the Church in those terms and pulling out the best of the communitarian spirit that is embodied in the culture of postmodernism. So this blog is not intended to be a slam on the movement as a whole, but I do think some serious thinking needs to be done about the direction of the EC movement. Secondly, at different times in history there have been various movements which have attempted to do what the EC movement is doing, namely take culture and the Church and find common ground. Historically, those attempts have met with varying degrees of success. What I find ironic about the weblog I am discussing is that Arianism was one such attempt. It was determined to be heretical and found its appropriate place in the garbage bin of rejected unorthodox theologies.

Back to the blog specifically…

To succinctly answer the question posed by the blog’s title, “Lord, I hope not.” The author lists several things that he throws out for discussion regarding the possible similarities between the two (he does not necessarily endorse any or all of them), and I would like to briefly comment on a few of them.

1.The work of theologians such as NT Wright has encouraged the emerging church to relocate Jesus in a plausible historical context.

As for paying attention to the historical surrounding’s in Jesus’ time, there is no shortage of precedent in all of Christian theology. It is true that there are tendencies to divorce Jesus from his historical settings, but there is no particular reason to believe that postmodern “narrative theology” has hit on something new and innovative here. Where it does become innovative, however, is when we see the author’s conclusions resulting from point 1: “As we come to understand more fully the worldview and motivation of Jesus the Jew, it becomes harder to think of him as somehow almighty God in human form.” This is a very bad sign indeed. It is not only a leap into the clearly unbiblical and historically heretical, it is bad thinking to boot. In other words, the jump seems to be that because Jesus was a human in historical conditions, He was a human just like we are. The majesty of the incarnation is that He was a human like we are, and yet God at the same time.

2. It is common now to hear people deliberately describe themselves as disciples or followers of Jesus. That has a strongly human orientation – you don’t ‘follow’ the second person of the trinity.

This point is just patently false. Again, we see the underpinnings of postmodern philosophy coming back to haunt a sincere believer. Due to the overemphasis postmodernism places on this material world, it is natural for postmoderns to loose touch with the actuality, reality and import of the supernatural. Paradoxically, at times it seems that they pay the most attention to the supernatural, but due to their unexamined and underlying metaphysic the supernatural is not as tangible and, ultimately, as real as the natural. For some reason the author thinks it would be easier and/or better to follow a human than God.

3. Rubenstein emphasizes the fact that Arianism represented a degree of continuity with Judaism, whereas the anti-Arian position, seeking to establish Christianity as a new religion for the Roman world, were anxious to break with the past and ‘update’ Christianity:

4. Nicene orthodoxy is much more closely associated with the rise of the state church.

I don’t know who Rubenstein is, but I am not sure I need to. The argument here is classic postmodernism at its best (worst). If a belief system is associated with the reigning political power, it has to be bad. The only good thoughts and systems of being can only come from the oppressed and doomed. I really don’t want to say much about this other than it is, again, horrible thinking. To associate the value of an idea with one’s perceptions of a political/socio-economic system is a classic, and yet somehow ubiquitous, fallacy. In other words, if Adolph Hitler believed that 2+2=4, then according to one of the basic tenants of postmodernism, we must reject the totalitarianism of 2+2=4.

5. Many in the emerging church will have more sympathy for the Arians’ interest in Jesus as ‘a loving advocate and friend’ than in the Nicene Christians need to present him as ‘a powerful, just ruler’ (146).

Once again, more sloppy associations and prejudicial editing. If this sound-bite was all you knew about Arianism and the Nicene Creed, then you would be compelled to take sides and reject the evil that is orthodox Christianity. The Nicene Creed is simply a codification of theology intended to fend off bad theology. There is absolutely nothing in any of the orthodox creeds which exclude or even eschew Jesus as a ‘loving advocate and friend.’ (This guy would make a good editor for the next Michael Moore film…)

6. Rubenstein, who is Jewish, argues that Nicene theology, particularly as it was developed by the Cappodocian fathers, had the effect of finally differentiating the Christian ‘Godhead’ from the ‘monolithic God worshiped by Jews, radical Arians, and, later on, by Muslims, Unitarians, Bahais, and others’ (209).

Another hyperbole designed to make Arianism look like the wiser of the two systems. It is in fact true that the early Church Fathers differentiated the God of the Bible from the god of Arianism, but only because they were two different things.

7. The Arians are characterized as being, on the whole, more tolerant and open-minded than the anti-Arians – qualities much prized by postmoderns.

Which, when understood in the postmodern context, is a bad thing

8. Arianism emerges as a more optimistic, down-to-earth, grassroots and socially-minded form of Christianity:

Survey says—“X”. Again, this is simply false. I have discovered that postmoderns, again ironically, for all their talk about returning to the historical roots of the Church (the Ancient-Future church movement for instance), have no real clue regarding actual historical fact. What about the Mennonites? the Quakers? the Waldenses? the Peitists? the Moody movement of Methodism? Pentecostalism in third-world countries? The Jesuits? The list could go on and on…

Because this blog has gone on for way too long, I will have to reserve my further critique of Postmodern philosophy for later. Suffice it to say that any point of view which bases itself on a system as vulnerable as postmodernism has a long way to go to show its value.

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