Monday, December 20, 2004

An Ultimate Irony: Can the Emergent Church Reform Evangelicalism?

I continue to be thrilled with the critical work done in the book, Reclaiming the Center. I have made one set of comments in the near past, and I would like to raise another issued inspired by another of the contributors.

The chapter entitled, “Postconservatism, Biblical Authority, and Recent Proposals for Re-Doing Evangelical Theology: A Critical Analysis” by Stephen J. Wellum proposes that the discussion between postconservatism (the theology proposed by Grenz, Olson, Franke, and McLaren among others, and embraced by much of the Emergent Church movement) and traditional evangelicalism is essentially a worldview discussion. That struck me as a valuable and accurate way to frame the theological discussion between the camps.

Postconservatism wants to revision evangelical theology in such a way as to embody the insights of postmodern language theory and epistemology. Those insights lead us to the proposals that we cannot get outside our language and that we cannot be certain about the things we know about God. The only certainty that we can have as Christians is that within our faith community God has spoken to us in a meaningful fashion. Ultimately that is all we need from God, and any attempt to speak of “truth” beyond our faith community is either simply useless or just wrong-headed.

Standing in stark opposition to this set of proposals is traditional evangelical theology in which speech about God can be objectively and universally true or false. According to this view we are able to get at reality through our language, even if a healthy dosage of humility is in order. Additionally, the things we know about God can be known with universal certainty (we can know them to be true at all times for all people) even if we will never have universal knowledge about God and reality.

To put the two views side-by-side in a kind of worldview comparison, we might summarize the debate this way:


Is it possible to get outside our language to the “real” world?
P-con: NO
Evangel: YES

Did God speak to all people at all times through His revealed Word no matter their faith community?
P-con: NO
Evangel: YES


Can we know something about God to be true no matter the faith community?
P-con: NO
Evangel: YES

Does the concept of “epistemic humility” demand that we avoid asserting objective truth about God?
P-con: YES
Evangel: NO

The consequences of coming down on one side or the other in this worldview debate are multitudinous!

The Reformer’s Dilemma

In order to further highlight the deep differences between the two points of view, I want to employ a thought experiment. In the Reformer’s Dilemma we are asked to consider whether our worldview allows us to accept the reality of any kind of intellectual or social reformation. In other words, if I believe in worldview X, can my worldview be reformed?

Intuitively, we all accept worldview reformation. We all believe, for example, that what Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. did was right, and if we believe that, then we are committed to the notion that the state of society was wrong before their labors took effect. But if we come across a worldview that does not have the logical structure to allow for reformation and we extend that worldview to its logical conclusions, then we are forced to disagree with the preceding intuition. If we discover that reformation is not possible, we are forced into a position where we believe that totalitarianism was neither right nor wrong in India and the institutions of slavery and racism were neither right nor wrong. When the “reformers” came along, all they really did was change the way society functions; they did not reform a wrong into a right!

So what kind of worldview does not allow for reformation? In short, any worldview which cannot get outside of itself to make judgments about the world cannot support a reformation from a wrong state of affairs to a right/better state of affairs. For example, if I believe that either the nature of language or the nature of epistemology does not allow me to judge the moral state of another culture or faith community’s state of affairs, then I cannot make a moral judgment about what is morally better or worse about another culture. Let us then say that my culture is a slave owning culture. By definition I think slave owning is just fine morally (I have no other ethical resource than what my culture has taught me, so I believe slave owning is OK because I have been taught that by my culture). But along comes someone on the fringes of my culture, or from a completely different culture altogether who tells me that slave owning is wrong. The only response I am even able to have is, “that’s great for you, but we are a slave owning culture.” I can’t even make a moral statement about either culture! I have absolutely no impetus to change my culture, because I have no resources available to me to judge whether my culture ought to be reformed-it simply is.

The Reformer’s Dilemma is a dilemma because this strikes us as completely wrong!

Unfortunately, the philosophy that the postconservative movement is beginning to embody is just the kind of worldview that fails the Reformer’s Dilemma thought experiment. If we cannot get outside our language games and we cannot either know or assert anything objective about God and His plan for humanity, then there is no reason or way to reform another individual’s heart.

In the ultimate twist of irony, those who wish to “revision” evangelical theology are embracing a philosophy which makes it literally impossible to do so.


David Trigueros said...

great comments on Reclaiming. I'm also reading it on Dr. DeWeeses's advice. Glad to know you guys had good memories in Denver. He speaks highly of his time there. Greetings from Long Beach, CA

Jeremy Pierce said...

There are lots of situations when you have reasons for reforming that come from within a language game, a conceptual framework, or an ethical view point. For instance, the American constitutional setup gave us all the reasons we needed for reforming in terms of slavery. It said all men are created equal. If a society is inconsistent with its own basis, then there's room for reform. Jefferson realized the need for reform when it came to slavery. He just didn't want to be the one to make the effort to do it.

Similarly, there might be reasons within our own epistemic framework in interpreting the biblical texts that require that very framework to be transformed. I'm sure the more careful post-conservatives realize this. I'm not sure if the people you mention do, because I've never read a word of what they've written outside out of context quotes here and there, but the people who really understand philosophical relativism and postmodernism will realize what I'm saying and explain their theoretical basis for reform.

Diane said...

Although I haven't read the sources you mentioned, I do have a thought that I think is a basis for the problems between the two camps.

I look back to the Reformation for example and look to see if they had this language problem. Well, yes, but not within their language as much as from one language (Latin) to the country language (i.e. German, English, etc.). But what they did do was go back to the Bible to bring out their truths. In other words, they didn't mold the Bible truths so much in the language that those truths got lost.

Today we are seeing, instead of allowing the Bible to speak for itself, bringing in secular truths and plowing around in the Bible to see if we can find passages or verses that support them.

We see this in "Christian Psychology," the seeker-sensitive movement, The Third Wave Charismatic revival movement and so forth.

It would be amazing if we would just allow te Bible to speak for itself. Yes, we can certainly use a modern user-friendly translation, but there are just some BIG religious words that people need to learn, such as justification, sanctification, propitiation. I believe we need to stop treating believers like they are third-grade droputs who cannot handle these things.
As for non-believers, people for centuries have been able to convert the masses within thier understanding without changing the epistemology of the theology. Why can't we? Because we have swallowed the lie of the culture that young people especially are "special" and we cannot offend them. I hate to inform people, but Christ Himself says he will be a stumbling block to many. Instead of avoiding this, we need to expect it.

Phil Steiger said...


Thanks for your comments, and I hope I have not been uncharitable to the postconservatives I am talking about.

You wrote: For instance, the American constitutional setup gave us all the reasons we needed for reforming in terms of slavery. It said all men are created equal.Your observation is true, but I think only in a post slavery and post MLK Jr. world. In the early and mid 1800s slaves were not people, and therefore were not accorded the same rights as whites. When a culture has a hard time defining who is a “person,” then the phrase “all men are created equal” does not apply to certain races. In this scenario, there is no cognitive dissonance in treating a race of people as sub-human and believing that all people are created equally. It was, in this sense at least, a reclaiming of a definition that helped end slavery. But that could only have happened if people had linguistic, epistemic, and moral resources which reached beyond their culture to something transcultural.

Adrian said...

hey this is great!
Am trying to draw together a debate about all this. I am calling these people neo-liberals and will mention this post on my blog.