Monday, October 17, 2005

Why James MacDonald Is Not Emerging

Leadership Blog: Out of Ur: Why James MacDonald Is Not Emerging (Part 1)

I don't know off-hand who James Macdonald is, but I like this post. His description of why he has not "become emergent" resonates well with my own reasons. Take this entry under #2:

We are expected to obey our Master and to accept His Word without equivocation. Cavalier questioning of the explicit statements of Scripture regarding the necessity of the new birth, the priority of biblical proclamation or the binding authority and sufficiency of Scripture cannot build a stronger, more Christ-honoring church no matter how sincere the messengers. Critiquing the church is good; disregarding or diminishing the revealed truth of our Founder is not good, no matter how ‘nice’ the people are who do it.

Sounds good to me. I am not exactly sure why questioning without answering (or even really wanting to or attempting to answer) is all the rage right now, but it is clouding a lot of good judgment out there.

9 comments:

Bob Robinson said...

It certainly is a shame that there ARE many out there who are calling themselves "emerging" that could care less about Scripture.

It is also a shame that the entire movement is colored by those people. Everyone should know by now that the "Emerging Church" is absolutely NOT a monolithic ideology about anything, including how we understand the authority of Scripture. That would be like saying "Everyone who is a protestant believes...". That would simply not be a fair statement, since there a lot of different views within "Protestantism."

I, for one, AM "emerging," yet I hold to a very high view of Scripture. There are many others who ARE "emerging" that also hold to a high view of Scripture. I can begin a list for you, if you'd like.

And this is a direct quote from the leaders of "Emergent" (from their statement, "Our Response to Critics of Emergent"), the leading "emerging church" group:

"yes, we affirm that we love, have confidence in, seek to obey, and strive accurately to teach the sacred Scriptures, because our greatest desire is to be followers and servants of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We regret that we have either been unclear or misinterpreted in these and other areas."

Phil Steiger said...

Bob-Good to hear from you again. In my personal interaction with people who talk to me about Emergent, I have gone to great lengths to distinguish between what I see as the “pastor on the street” who labels himself/herself as Emergent (to them it means a certain style of worship and a desire to be authentic), from the leaders and popular authors in the movement. So I wholeheartedly agree that there is no monolithic movement that can simplistically be labeled “Emergent.” But because of that I have a qualm or two…more on that later.

I trust your judgment, and I wonder if you can help me through some of these thoughts I haven’t put in one place yet. I must admit, the possibility of what I argue below being true bugs me, but I don’t yet see an alternative.

I have read the declaration you cite, and my reaction is fairly simple-I hope so, but my disposition remains one of hope and not of fulfillment. Emergent leaders can say they have some kind of a high view of Scripture all day long, but that doesn’t exempt them from needing to put the proof in the pudding, so to speak. German higher critics also had a high view of Scripture, and it lead them down a very different path from evangelicalism. My exposure so far to Emergent writing and thought on the role of Scripture leads me to conclude that their notion of honoring Scripture is not the same at the standard evangelical notion. So, to be charitable, when Emergents tell us they have a high view of Scripture/confidence in Scripture, they are probably equivocating.

As just a small list in support of my equivocation charge:

Doug Pagitt thinks we are allowed to question the divinity of Christ if culture takes us to that point.

Brian McLaren’s writings are long on novel theology and short on actual, biblical and theological support. In The Story We Find Ourselves In, he posits a new theory of the atonement (against the traditional theories) without much more than emotionalism as its back-up. At the end of the same book, Dan can’t get a straight answer out of Neo about hell, even though Christ was quite clear and straight on the subject himself.

When given a chance to provide a clear and biblical stance of “hate the sin and love the sinner” on national TV, McLaren teased with the old situationalism of “love uber alles.”

The impetus behind the emergent critique is cultural and not theological. In other words, though plenty of theological thought has come out of emergent thought, it is not the motivating factor. The motivating factor is the cultural and philosophical trend of postmodernism. Ironically, Os Guinness critiqued seeker-sensitive churches for making the same mistake: making the masses sovereign over the message.

In the vein of “love uber alles,” Chalke (an emergent leader in the UK) fails to read the whole of his Bible when he makes the claim, “The Bible…never defines him as anything other than love.” (The Lost Message of Jesus, p. 63) That kind of mistake from a serious leader does not result from a high view of Scripture.

So to my aforementioned qualm…if it is true that there is not a monolithic unity between all Emergent types, and plenty of them still want to hold to some form of a high view of Scripture, and so many of the leading thinkers in the movement have not demonstrated as much, why hasn’t there been a call for reform from the rank and file? Is it possible that the emergent pastors on the street have failed to be critical enough of their own icons? Is it possible Emergent is more monolithic (at least on this issue) than most would allow? Maybe I am TOTALLY missing it, but where is the critique within Emergent?

Bob Robinson said...

Great stuff, here, Phil. I appreciate your concern. The internal critique of Emergent leaders' theology is not often found in their writings as much as in their personal conversations. The movement is too new to find a lot of inter-criticism in written form.
I had dinner Sunday night with Tony Jones, National Coordinator for Emergent-US, and we agreed that we find it perplexing that critics of Emergent lump everyone into believing what Brian McLaren writes. That's ludicrous. I remember Brian himself telling me that Stan Grenz disagreed with him on Brian's ideas about Hell.

You cite some specific instances, which each deserve some comment. Sorry if this gets looooong!!

Doug Pagitt is certainly pushing the envelope when he talks about creating a new theology. It makes many of us uncomfortable. But, on the other hand, it does not frighten me. I am open to having all my presuppositions challenged--even my belief in the divinity of Christ. If it is true (which I certainly believe it is!), it will stand in the end. Maybe not for some, but certainly for the ones who are following the One who is the "truth." In order to honestly do "deconstruction," everything must be open to it. But the goal is not to lay waste everything, but to reconstruct. I'm confident that the divinity of Christ will stand.

2. While McLaren may go down a few rabbit trails that we may not understand or agree with, that certainly does not negate that the "Story We Find Ourselves In" is certainly a biblical metanarrative (Creation, Crisis, Calling, Conversation, Christ, Community, Consummation). Yes, the main spokeperson for an "emergent/postmodern Christianity" is espousing a biblical metanarrative!

3. I watched that same Larry King show and had a different take on it than you did. It seemed to me that McLaren was more interested in showing love and compassion than drawing battle lines in the culture wars. McLaren is driven primarily by MISSION, so his appeal to loving our neighbor as opposed to going to war against our neighbor was appropriate (and biblical). The LaHayes came across as haughty and doctrinaire, McLaren came across more Christ-like. It was, remember, just a sound-bite interview format. In such a format, McLaren chose to show love and compassion rather than show the stereotypical evangelical judgmentalism that the LaHayes showed.

4. I simply disagree with you that the impetus behind emergent is cultural and not theological. Emergents would say that this is a false dichotomy. Theology has ALWAYS been done in the midst of culture. Theology is the continuous grappling with what God has revealed to us in light of where we are situated in culture. This is why theology has always "evolved." "Trinity" as a theological concept came into existence because of a cultural situation, as a corrective to heresy. The Reformation came as a result of the cultural changes in the time of Luther and Calvin. I have several systematic theologies on my shelf--everything from the early church fathers, dispensational, Weslyan, Baptist, Reformed, Anglican, Charismatic, Roman Catholic (both pre- and post-Vatican II), etc., etc. Each of these theologies are attempts to understand Scripture from different cultural vantage-points. Not one of them is an "objective, end-all, be-all theology." That has never been, and never will be written. Why can we not also add to that mix a Theology that has as its cultural mileau postmodernism?

Phil Steiger said...

Bob-

I appreciate your thoughts! And I am glad to hear that there are those actively involved in Emergent who are not always in lock-step with each other. I certainly don’t doubt it, but when I don’t see critique from within the camp, it looks more like people circling the wagons instead of searching for the truth. Certainly I just need to keep up with more writers/authors/bloggers, etc.

Reflecting on your responses, a couple of things continue to strike me about how emergent thought is progressing. You mention that Pagitt’s comment makes some feel uncomfortable, and I think that certainly should be the case. My reaction to what you said next is a kind of “yes, but….” I do not think there is anything inherently wrong in calling all our beliefs into question, but it depends on what one means by “calling into question” or “challenging presuppositions.” My sense is that Pagitt (and certainly others-not to pin him down personally), is ready for that belief to actually be on the chopping block (like hell for some, sin for others, atonement etc.). That is, in my opinion, the wrong sense of “challenging presuppositions”-it is ultimate capitulation to postmodern philosophy.

If one considers Christ a qualified “truth,” as evidenced by the quotes in your comment, how do you differentiate between your confidence in Christ’s divinity, and another’s equal confidence in his insanity? And how am I supposed to choose between the two? And, honestly, appealing to a fuzzy notion of community just doesn’t cut it. For every beautiful Christian community, there are just as many beautiful and attractive Hindu communities.

As for The Story We Find Ourselves In being a biblical narrative, simply appealing to biblical stories or referencing the Bible a lot does not a biblical narrative make. Exactly like their stated commitment to Scripture, the pudding is lacking proof. But we will simply disagree with each other on this kind of critique until another much deeper issue is addressed.

You wrote, “Not one of them is an "objective, end-all, be-all theology." That has never been, and never will be written.” Again, my response is “yes, but….” It is true no theological system has gathered in all of God and presented Him to a publisher in three neat volumes. But, so what? The argument you appear to make at this point is one of the crucial errors in postmodernism in general and emergent thought in particular. The argument is: Because we can never know things omnisciently (or completely), we should be skeptical of all claims to knowledge and truth. That is a false dichotomy: it is what D.A. Carson calls in his trenchant critique, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, a “wretched antithesis.” There is a third way. We can know some things certainly, we know many things about God analogously or even partially, and there are some things on which we withhold judgment.

Any of those theologies on our shelves is objectively true and right if they affirm, “Christ is God in human flesh,” or, “God exists,” or, “Christ died for our sins.” The details of those can be known to varying degrees, but the propositions are true, and knowably true. We may, for apologetic purposes, call our presuppositions into question, but only in service of the objective truths themselves.

And as one last reflection here, I think the notion of Christ-likeness should be evaluated. I agree that the LaHaye’s probably came off as a little to harsh and negative while McLaren held up the banner of unconditional love. But, I would not say that he came off as more Christ-like in that he promoted love over a doctrine of sin and its consequences. Christ-likeness is a matter of reflecting the actions and character of Christ, and every instance I can think of in which Christ encountered someone seeking grace and reconciliation ends with a phrase like, “go and sin no more.” Christ never handed out cheap grace or reconciled sinners without confronting sin. I am not so sure the Emergent penchant for promoting love over forgiveness is all that Christ-like.

Bob Robinson said...

Phil,

I promise to respond to your excellent remarks above soon.

In the meantime, you might want to read Scot McKnight's analysis of MacDonald's points. MacDonald was a student of McKnight at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (though I don't remember MacDonald, he and I must have attended TEDS at different times).

Bob Robinson said...

[[My sense is that Pagitt...is ready for that belief to actually be on the chopping block (like hell for some, sin for others, atonement etc.). That is, in my opinion, the wrong sense of “challenging presuppositions”-it is ultimate capitulation to postmodern philosophy.]]

I wonder if what you are reacting against is not a "capitulation to postmodern philosophy" but rather a challenge to your interpretation of Scripture. We may disagree with Pagitt or anyone else about their interpretation of Scripture (like I disagree with others within Christianity) about theological concepts like Hell, Sin, and Atonement. I will not attack Pagitt as "capitulating" to something or another, but rather I will listen and dispute whether or not his postmodern interpretation of Scripture is closer to what God has revealed than my 17th Century interpretation of what God has revealed. Am I right about Hell? Well, even the greatest evangelical pastor/theologian of the 20th Century (John Stott) has a differing view of Hell than I do. Am I right about Sin? Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, calls into question the most common definition of sin as "selfishness." Am I right about Atonement? For years, my conception of Atonement was truncated to merely penal substitution. Now I have discovered how other people throughout the history of the Church have articulated the Atonement, and I feel I am getting closer to what God has revealed. If all I had was the Reformed view of Atonement, I would not have the fuller picture.

[[how do you differentiate between your confidence in Christ’s divinity, and another’s equal confidence in his insanity? And how am I supposed to choose between the two?]]

This is a GREAT question. Some would say that the Holy Spirit quickens the spiritual ability of people to understand the spiritual story of the Gospel. The story has power through the Spirit, and does not necessarily need a reasoned philosophical argument to back it up. When people encounter the living Christ, that's enough. Yet, with that said, I still see a need to reason with some people about how other communities of faith do not have the incarnated, killed, and risen Christ, which differentiates Christianity from all other faiths. But it still comes down to their willingness to be open to an encounter with Christ.

[[We can know some things certainly, we know many things about God analogously or even partially, and there are some things on which we withhold judgment.]]
I agree to a point. In my skepticism of how well language captures "Truth," I am constantly open to new articulations of what is there in Scripture so that I can get at what God has revealed about Reality. What I can certainly affirm is that the PERSON of Christ is true, and that I have encountered Him through His People, through my personal experience of sacrament, worship, and prayer, and through his Word.

[[Any of those theologies on our shelves is objectively true and right if they affirm, “Christ is God in human flesh,” or, “God exists,” or, “Christ died for our sins.” The details of those can be known to varying degrees, but the propositions are true, and knowably true. We may, for apologetic purposes, call our presuppositions into question, but only in service of the objective truths themselves.]]
I agree, not because Philosophical Reason legitimates those three propositions as "objectively true," but because the story of the Gospels tells us that these things are true. Propositions that spring from the Bible I believe; propositions that are legitimated by way of Reason I keep with hands wide open.

[[I think the notion of Christ-likeness should be evaluated.]]
Sorry about that. I agree that "Christ-likeness" is becoming a junk-term, based on whatever anybody wants to perceive Christ to be. My point is more along the lines of this: Tim LaHaye, in the minds of many nonChristian Americans (as well as Christians like myself), represents someone who has not been a very good representative of Christ. His "Us-vs.-Them" ideology has been the underlying culprit of much fundamentalist Christian animosity toward the rest of Americans. So, sometimes when you appear in a forum with such a person, you purposely present a clear antithesis of such a hate-filled Christianity as an apologetic and evangelistic endeavor. I think that is what McLaren was attempting to do. I may be wrong. But if I were in a forum with a LaHaye-type, I would bend over backwards to present a loving, compassionate Christ in contrast.

By the way,
I wanted to say how much I appreciate you and hope to one day meet you. Though we have a few disagreements, I think that we are closer than most and are both legitimately seeking to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength!

Phil Steiger said...

Bob-Sorry for the delay in writing you back. It has been a busy week. And before I continue, I have to echo your last sentiment-I have greatly appreciated our dialogue and have benefited from it immensely. If the opportunity arises in the future to meet, I look forward to it!

You wrote: “I wonder if what you are reacting against is not a "capitulation to postmodern philosophy" but rather a challenge to your interpretation of Scripture…. Am I right about Hell?…Am I right about Sin?…Am I right about Atonement?”

I am still going to use the word “capitulation.” And by it I essentially mean the train of thought that came across in his quote: If culture demands I look at my theology in a way that might ask me to give up an essential component, I will have to do that. In other words, I consider it capitulation when a churchman lets pop culture dictate his or her theology. Pagitt may or may not actually do that, but that logic was in his unfortunate quote.

I fully agree that there are different theories about those things, but none of them that remain orthodox actually call their reality into question. (Some may call into question an eternal hell, but that is why they are held in suspicion.) So, for instance, the Incarnation is a complex combination of the divine and the human, and there are many ways of handling its workings. But if a theology calls into question the divinity of Christ, it is immediately held in suspicion as being unbiblical, and rightfully so. In essence, orthodoxy has always allowed room for various theories about a given reality, but it balks as a denial of those realities.

Concerning your note on the role of the Holy Spirit and argumentation, I must say I wholly agree. In so far as those statements go, I think it is the right way of looking at the whole matter. I just disagree with those who have become so pomo that they have prematurely given up on the reasonability/universalizability of Christianity.

You wrote: “I agree to a point. In my skepticism of how well language captures "Truth," I am constantly open to new articulations of what is there in Scripture so that I can get at what God has revealed about Reality.”

I think my thoughts above capture the essence of my response here as well. Language is not merely a game, and it is not an insurmountable block to reality. The realities of Scripture may be described in different ways (different theories about theological realities), but there is a serious and substantial difference between a proposition like, “Jesus was God,” and, “Jesus may not have been God.” Those two sentences do not represent different ways of describing the same thing, but different things altogether.

God bless!

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks for the reply.

Capitulation is indeed a problem. If popular culture is trumping biblical revelation, then I too have a problem with that.

The issue with me is not biblical revelation, but with modern interpretation of biblical revelation, based on "enlightenment reason." That kind of interpretation can and must be re-evaluated, for what is sovereign is not God and his revelation, but Reason's ability to legitimate that revelation.

But, again, the biblical revelation (at least for me) is a non-negotiable. I think that some who call themselves "emerging" were not biblical to start with, or they have been in an evangelical tradition and have decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater in their re-thinking modern evangelicalism. That is something that I, for one, have been outspoken against within the movement.
Scot McKnight is a new voice in the Emerging Church, and is thoroughly biblical as well.

The Emerging Church movement is new enough that there are voices all over the place on these matters. There will come a time that there will be clarity on this, I think. There will be those who will have decided that the Bible is just one source (along with other things) of revelation. They will become one branch that will shoot out and be what they will become.

And then there will be those (like myself and Scot who will side with the Kevin Vanhoozers and the Jamie Smiths of the world) who will accept much of what postmodernism has to teach us, but will hold fast to the biblical revelation.

Rich Tatum said...

I'm not up to the level of dialog you guys are at ... I'm simply not as conversant with all that the emerging leaders have said, but I, too, feel that asking questions is fine, but at some point there need to be coherent answers.

I responded to a list of questions Gegory TeSelle put to a bunch of fellow Assembly of God mnisters at a conference. TeSelle put forward a list of thought-provoking questions, but no answers. I felt that the questions were good, but they needed to be answered with questions that exposed assumptions. So, I did that. You might (or might not) find my post of interest:

“It’s okay … I’m Emergent. I’m here to help.” Or, deconstructing the helpful deconstruction.

Regards,

Rich
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