Emerging Church leaders believe that Evangelicals should let go of the Bible and reason as their anchors.
This seems to suggest that the Emerging Church movement may be unleashing deep paradigmatic changes not only in American Evangelicalism but also in Protestantism and Christianity as a whole. Something inside and outside Christianity must be at work, making such a change desirable and even necessary.
But dissatisfaction runs even deeper. Numerous believers experience a growing confusion about Christian doctrines as presented by the fragmented views of the Evangelical community. “On the front end of analysis one could argue that the ECM [Emerging Church Movement] is merely reacting to a perception of dead religiosity, hoping to breathe life into the body of Christ. But a closer analysis shows that its reaction to established ministry and typical church life (what some of them call the ‘modern church’) involve deep theological issues and metaphysical challenges. Its response entails systemic issues much more than mere aesthetic preferences.”4
According to Emerging Church leaders, this crisis can be traced to Evangelical responses to modern philosophy. Not without reason they blame the rise of the liberal/conservative controversy that divides Evangelicals on the Fundamentalist response to modernity. Liberals responded to modernity by constructing their theological project “upon the foundation of an unassailable religious experience while conservatives look to an error-free Bible as the incontrovertible foundation.”5
This suggests that both Evangelical and Emerging Church leaders fail to realize that at a deeper level, the crisis they confront stems from the underdevelopment and limitations of Protestant thought and the failure to produce an alternate synthesis of Christian theology and practice based on Scripture alone. The very existence of the “Evangelical coalition” flows from and witnesses to this fact. “American religion,” says Phyllis Tickle, “had never had a center before, primarily because it was basically Protestant in its Christianity; and Protestantism, with its hallmark characteristic of divisiveness, has never had a center.”6
The inner spiritual, theological, and hermeneutical crisis brewing in Evangelicalism during the past two centuries can explain the need and even possibility for epochal change yet, by itself, it cannot explain its generation. Something more was needed to generate an epochal mutation in Evangelical Christianity. Arguably the advent of postmodernity provided the trigger to the rise of the Emerging Church.
Prior to the growing spiritual and theological dissatisfaction in the Evangelical movement in the last two decades of the 20th century, Postmodernism was effecting epochal changes at the very core and foundations of Western civilization. Like the “Emerging Church” label, the “postmodern” label is also an umbrella designation, involving various issues and levels. For this reason, Emerging Church leaders share a growing sense that the world as we knew it is changing, and they also understand postmodernity in various ways.
Evaluation of the Emerging Church movement raises the need to “identify and understand the underlying ideas and assumptions of what has come to be called the ‘modern’ worldview, which has dominated Western culture for the past few hundred years.”10 It is also important to become familiar with “the postmodern ideas, which have become dominant in the early twenty-first century.”11 And two main levels are involved in the epochal changes that Emerging Church leaders identify as postmodernity: cultural and philosophical.
Stanley Grenz identifies informatics (Computer Age), centerlessness, pluralism, multivalence, impurity, juxtaposition, eclecticism, the refusal to place “high” art above “pop” art, and, belief in the supernatural and extra-terrestials as some of the characteristic traits of postmodern culture.13 These values are embraced, embodied, and disseminated through television, the Internet, and rock music. At the sociological level, then, Postmodernism describes Western society at the turn of the 21st century.
Philosophically, Postmodernism names changes in the area of epistemology. Epistemology is the philosophical discipline that studies the way human beings know what they know, especially in the field of scientific research. These changes that were a long time in the making involve the demise of Foundationalism and the impossibility that human beings could experience “objective” and “universal” knowledge. Thus, postmodernists think that “the world is not simply an objective given that is ‘out there,’ waiting to be discovered and known; reality is relative, indeterminate, and participatory.”14 Consequently, postmodernists “contend that the work of scientists, like that of any other human beings, is historically and culturally conditioned and that our knowledge is always incomplete.”15
But postmodernity involves an even more radical change at the metaphysical level few Emerging Church leaders have considered. Metaphysics is the philosophical discipline that interprets the nature of reality as a whole. As such it includes general and regional interpretations on the nature of existence, the former dealing with the general characteristics of any and all things real, and the latter with the general characteristics of specific entities, notably, God, humans, and the world. Finally, metaphysics also includes the interpretation of the interrelation among all things real (the system of reality as a whole).
The rethinking of metaphysics came to full expression and articulation in the work of Martin Heidegger, one of the leading postmodern philosophers. Heidegger confirmed and further articulated Nietzsche’s “overturning of Platonism,” which has been the ruling metaphysical view since the beginnings of Western civilization. Heidegger calls this the “destruction” and “overcoming” of metaphysics.16 The “destruction” of metaphysics means the criticism and abandonment of the traditional approach to philosophy and theology, and the “overcoming” means a new interpretation of metaphysics that Heidegger advanced throughout his many works.
Even though postmodernity brought about epochal changes in the areas of culture, epistemology, and metaphysics, Emerging Church leaders and their Evangelical critics have been able so far to relate only to the cultural and epistemological levels, seemingly impervious to the deep metaphysical change postmodernity has brought about.
Christians have always experienced the gospel within their diverse and always changing cultural, philosophical, and scientific settings. Why, then, have Evangelicals changed their relation to culture from rejection to embrace? Why are Emerging Church leaders more positive about cultural trends, philosophical doctrines, and scientific views than their predecessors? Why do Emerging Church leaders embrace postmodern culture as part of their Christian experience?
At the practical level, Emerging Church leaders embrace postmodern culture to shape the forms of liturgy and attract believers to the worship services. An obvious internal motivation for the “turn to culture” is the low attendance at church services. According to Philip Clayton, “Mainline churches are simply not attracting significant proportions of the younger population in America and there are no signs that this pattern is about to change. If for some reason all the persons in mainline churches today who are over the age of sixty-five were to disappear, two thirds of current church attendees would be gone.”18 This indicates that the secularization of Western culture that emptied churches in Europe during the 20th century has finally arrived in America. The pragmatic motivation to fill the churches, however, may be the trigger but not the ground for the Emerging Church’s turn to culture.
The central claim of Pentecostalism is that “it is possible to encounter God directly and personally through the power of the Holy Spirit. God is to be known immediately and directly, not indirectly through study of a text.”20 The direct communication of the transcendent God facilitates cultural accommodation because at best it neglects and at worst rejects the principle of divine incarnation in the cultural forms of the words and the human body of Jesus Christ. When the cultural forms of divine revelation presented in Scripture are neglected or rejected, cultural accommodation not only ceases to be a problem and becomes an essential part of Christian experience.
Readers familiar with modern theology cannot miss the basic coincidence between the Pentecostal conception of worship as encounter and Schleiermacher’s theological interpretation of Christian experience. This coincidence is the reason that Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Emerging Christians share the same pluralistic/eclectic approach to biblical interpretation, liturgy, and spirituality; hence, the great resonance that the Emerging Church movement has achieved in a very short time.
A possible reason that Emerging Church leaders embrace postmodern relativism may be that this help to justify their rejection of modernity and dismissal of biblical inerrancy and doctrinal authority. Simultaneously, postmodern relativism helps Emergents to justify the existence of theological disagreements and doctrinal pluralism. In a way, the relativistic version of postmodernity helps to account for the fragmentation of Protestantism through the centuries. It also shows that Evangelical pluralism and eclecticism were unavoidable. Seen in this light, the Emerging Church may be the best expression of the Evangelical experience.
Additionally, the limited capabilities of postmodern reason seem to indicate that a universal metaphysics might be unreachable. As Emerging Church leaders, together with their Roman Catholic and Evangelical colleagues, build on the “Grand Tradition,” they implicitly assume the classical metaphysical framework embraced by the church fathers. This fact may help to understand their failure to accept the postmodern idea of the nature of existence.
For Emerging Church leaders, change in ministerial and liturgical methodology centers on “recovering the gospel from the clutches of a consumer culture” by using postmodern deconstructionist methodologies.21 At this level, changes in the church take place in the areas of ministry, liturgy, and mission. In these activities, Emerging Church leaders want to distance themselves and overcome the practices of the traditional and pragmatic evangelicals of the 20th century. This level closely relates to the cultural level of postmodern change described above.
Although one may assume that changes at the methodological level are disconnected with theology and doctrine, Robert Webber’s summary of the main components involved in the Emerging Church movement reminds us that such disconnection is impossible. According to him, the main components of Emerging Church change at the methodological level are: (1) a missiological understanding of the church, (2) spiritual formation, (3) cultural awareness, and, (4) theological reflection. By explaining that these components are interdependent and mutually condition one another, Webber makes clear that any attempt to isolate the methodological level from theological reflection naively ignores reality. He correctly links methodological change with theological change. On the one hand, then, the actual content that new methodological views on ministry and liturgy may bring into the church is directly conditioned by the theological ideas that pastors assume. On the other hand, to make methodological changes at the ministerial and liturgical levels without simultaneously making changes at the doctrinal-theological level is impossible.
Additionally, because “the practice of ministry is already theology—theology in action,”24 Emerging leaders are able to articulate the inner link between classical and modern theological traditions, on one side, and the experiential nature of Charismatic Christianity on the other. They see this combination to be pregnant with possibilities and ecumenical promise.
The theological and doctrinal level of change in the Emerging Church centers on the role of Scripture in the understanding of Christian belief and practice. At this level changes take place mainly as reinterpretation of the role of Scripture and the teachings of the church. In this area, Emerging Church leaders want to distance themselves from the theological approach of American Evangelicalism during the past two centuries based on the inerrancy of Scripture advanced by the Old Princetonian theologians. This level is deeper than the methodological one and consequently produces a more significant mutation in the Evangelical community.
Emergent leaders are getting the message and responding to the challenge. Most of them, however, are working at great disadvantage because their Evangelical denominations have not prepared them for such a task, neither spiritually nor theologically. Besides, many have experienced Christianity as part of their own denominational culture rather than from serious theological and philosophical reflection on biblical teachings. Doctrines are part of their cultural and religious “inheritance” but not of their thinking and spiritual patterns.
As Emerging Church leaders attempt to explain their beliefs to others, they discover the obvious inconsistencies of their own biblical and doctrinal understandings, as well as the theological divisions existing within the Evangelical community. Moreover, they realize the need to link doctrines, biblical understanding, and experience into a unified net or system of meaning and experience. In their personal and ministerial search for theological meaning they are not prepared to accept without question or explanation dogmatic answers from their mentors or denominations. Instead, they are learning for the first time the exhilarating feeling theological discoveries bring to themselves and the community.
Not surprisingly, at times their theological writings resemble a diary of their theological pilgrimage. Brian McLaren’s writings give testimony to this “testimonial” or “conversational” method of doing theology. Such a procedure is more than a way to communicate truth. It is a path leading to the discovery of truths other Christians before them had embraced. Through this conversational methodology, Emerging Church leaders are reaching conclusions on doctrinal issues like the atonement, justification by faith, the kingdom of God, and hell that their Evangelical peers regard as heretical and therefore unacceptable.
Doctrinal change in the Emerging Church movement, however, goes deeper than mere doctrinal divergence. It involves a paradigmatic shift in the role Scripture plays in the construction of Christian teachings. Phyllis Tickle correctly estimates that at the center of all paradigmatic shifts lies the perennial question of authority. In the Protestant Reformation, authority shifted from the Pope to the sola Scriptura principle. But Scripture required interpretation that led to denominational and theological fragmentation. And theological fragmentation eventually generated theological and spiritual dissatisfaction.
An important factor accelerating the shift from the Protestant sola Scriptura as principle of authority to the Roman Catholic spiritual experience guided by tradition principle advanced by the Emerging Church movement is the rise of Pentecostalism. Remarkably, Evangelical responses to the Emerging Church ignore this factor. However, Phyllis Tickle explains that Pentecostalism directly contradicts the sola Scriptura principle of the Reformation, thereby providing Emerging Church leaders with a strong religious base to question and dismiss the sola Scriptura principle.
This experiential base fits well with the sheer frustration growing out of centuries of theological fragmentation in Protestant theology and practice. To Emerging Church leaders, this fact unavoidably indicates that a genuine theology from Scripture alone is impossible.
Consequently, to overcome theological and ministerial fragmentation, a new comprehensive way to do theology had to be found. To this end, Pentecostalism became instrumental because by fitting well with the Evangelical experience, modern and postmodern epistemologies, and Roman Catholic theological tradition, it naturally emerged as the efficient cause, bringing them together in a new synthesis for a new age.
In this context, postmodernity’s criticism of reason and the non-foundationalist epistemology became scholarly tools for Emerging Church leaders to reject the Evangelical belief in an inerrant Scripture as authority. The same tools point them to the community and its tradition as the new locus of authority for the church.
Initial Evangelical reactions to the Emerging Church movement indicate its strongest opposition focuses precisely on the role of Scripture in theological construction. However, Tickle thinks history is on the side of the Emerging Church movement away from the sola Scriptura principle and predicts its eventual demise and the emergence of a new principle of authority. Yet, when we realize that the alternative to the sola Scriptura principle is tradition and community, it is difficult to envision them as “new.” Instead, it seems that the “old” Roman Catholic principle from which the Reformation emerged is carrying the day after five centuries of controversy. But, even if the Emerging Church may come to define the new Evangelical center from tradition instead of from Scripture, thereby bringing the Protestant Reformation to an end, would a remnant of biblical Protestantism survive?
Robert Webber testifies to the existence of an anti-philosophical bias in American Fundamentalism, the “all you need is the Bible” appropriation of the sola Scriptura principle in Evangelical seminaries. Neo-Evangelical pragmatism did not do much to reverse this state of affairs. Emerging Church leaders, then, react against the Evangelical neglect of the philosophical foundations of their faith. By so doing they grant a positive role to philosophy that contradicts the sola Scriptura principle on which Evangelicalism stands.
Interestingly, both Emerging Church and neo-Evangelicals leaders agree in their disapproval of Grudem’s approach. According to Bolt, “Evangelical theological method should not be restricted to summarizing biblical doctrine. Such an understanding of the theological task today fails as claim to truth about God, a universal claim desperately needed today.”27
These confronted positions beg the question about whether neo-evangelicals embrace the sola Scriptura principle as the principle of authority in doctrinal and practical matters. If they do, then, we are facing the existence of different views of understanding the same principle. We cannot dismiss either position by using slogans and labels. They require careful reflection, especially for Evangelicals facing epochal change in this generation.
Perhaps the so-called Radical Reformation came closer to building on the sola Scriptura principle, yet, it never generated a philosophical and theological synthesis. However, the continuity of Protestant theology with medieval Roman Catholic Theology transpired soon after the reformation during the period of Protestant Orthodoxy (1560-1620).These simple historical facts cast suspicion over the neo-Evangelical claim that its doctrines spring from the sola Scriptura principle. Perhaps neo-Evangelicalism owes more to the Radical Reformation than to the Magisterial Reformers such as Luther and Calvin. Yet they are also dependent on the latter for their main doctrinal trusts.
While the Evangelical experience is slowly but surely cracking under the pressure of inner spiritual, theological, and hermeneutical crises, the world around it is crumbling under the pressure of philosophical, scientific, and technological changes. Without inner or external anchors to guide its destiny and mission, rapid changes threaten to further fragment the never cohesive existence of the Evangelical movement.
To save Protestantism and advance its mission, Emerging Church leaders believe, unlike their predecessors, that Evangelicals should let go of the Bible and reason as their anchors and embrace postmodern social, epistemological changes. In their minds this amounts to the postmodern reformation of the church, even the next reformation. In this process, the Protestant Reformation based on Scripture appears to be vanishing before our eyes.
Fernando Canale, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES