A Closer Look at the Emerging Church

A Closer Look at the Emerging Church

The Emerging Church has originated and is evolving inside the walls of Evangelical denominations

Fernando Canale

Because the changes facing Western culture affect the actual religious experience of all believers, including Evangelicals and Seventh-day Adventists, reaction to postmodernity and engagement with the Emerging Church movement has been unavoidable. “Different people react to such radical changes in different ways,” writes Alan Stucky. “Some quickly adapt while others fight to keep their world the same at all costs. Some find themselves in the middle, cautiously seeking to understand their new world but weighing it against where they’ve been before. And just like people, different churches and denominations have different reactions to a world that seems to be changing around them incessantly.”1



Although the Emerging Church movement arguably revolves around worship, there has been surprisingly little critical theological evaluation of its views of worship and spirituality. Instead, there are some passing positive comments in the area of ecclesiology. A leading group of Evangelical scholars led by renowned theologian Millard Erickson basically agree with the Emerging Church movement on the issue of worship.

William Henard and Adam Greenway provide a critical but sympathetic evaluation of the Emerging Church movement.2 But they distinguish between two streams within it: one hostile to Evangelical doctrines (“Emergent”) and another friendly to Evangelical doctrines (“Emerging”). They find laudable the Emerging Church’s openness to church tradition and its spiritual and liturgical forms. But little attention is focused on Emerging Church spirituality and worship styles.

Jim Shaddix does take issue with what he perceives to be a central weakness in the Emerging Church liturgical paradigm. He challenges its “blatant redefinition of preaching.”3 And Roger Oakland asserts that Emerging Church preaching demonstrates a shift in emphasis from simply proclaiming and explaining the Word of God into a conversation in which Scripture is merely one of the participants.4 “As opposed to being the sole authority for faith and practice,” he writes, “the Bible is merely one contributor sitting around the table—alongside experience and collective wisdom—as an authoritative member of the community.”5 Yet, from solid biblical evidence he shows that “when it comes to the issue of discovering and communicating spiritual truth, preachers in the Bible saw their responsibility simply to teach propositionally what God had revealed and persuade their listeners to act on it.”6

Further, Shaddix addresses the central tenet on which this theory in the Emerging Church stands: the notion that the essence of Christian spirituality does not involve knowledge and education. He challenges this position by showing “Scripture’s emphasis on the essential nature of knowledge and understanding for spiritual development.”7 On this basis he concludes that the primary task of ministers in preaching “is not to give opinions, indirect implications, extra-biblical principles, or even inspiration for mutual dialogue but instead reveal the Holy Spirit’s intended meaning in Scripture so that people’s minds are exposed to supernatural truth.”8

Finally, he exhorts Emerging Church and Evangelical pastors against the tendency of relying on methods of communication rather than on the supernatural message itself. Paul himself exemplified the principle according to which method should not rise above or overshadow the message. This usually takes place in Emerging Church and Evangelical worship because preachers are convinced they will reach postmodern audiences by using methods “like progressional dialogue, conversational speech, relational presentations, visual imagery, contemplative atmospheres, and other components that appeal to the postmodern mind.”9 Instead he claims, “Some methods of presentation can actually overshadow the message because of their emotional nature or other qualities that bypass understanding and appeal to other aspects of people’s flesh.10 Instead, the sermon should make the message clear to the mind and heart of the believer.

Shaddix’s emphasis on preaching from Scripture to reach the mind of the believer directly contradicts the dynamics of mystic spirituality that the Emerging Church adopts from church tradition. This point is clear to many lay Evangelicals, who strongly oppose the new spirituality and worship advanced by the Emerging Church. The presence of these views may signal the existence of spirited opposition at the grass roots level of the Evangelical movement to both the spirituality of Christian tradition and the Emerging Church.



There is no clear single conservative view of what postmodernity represents for Evangelicalism. Evangelical scholars are aware of the postmodern spirit of the times and favor engagement rather than isolation. Douglas Groothius, however, describes the spirit of American postmodernism by correctly comparing it with the Sophists of old. Protagoras’ spirit, he asserts, “is reincarnated (with a few twists) in a host of postmodernist thinkers.”11 Not surprisingly, then, conservative Evangelicals have a more critical and nuanced approach to postmodernity and reject the way of philosophical and theological accommodation favored by the Emerging Church movement.

Some scholars even challenge the Emerging Church’s accommodation to postmodern relativism by engaging it at a general philosophical level, thereby opening possible alternate ways to relate to postmodernity.

● The revelational alternative stands on the conviction that postmodern criticism of scientific metanarrative does not apply to religious narratives. Kwabena Donkor observes correctly that Scripture makes universal claims to truth “not on the basis of some kind of universal reason, but on the basis of faith.”12 Consequently, there is no need to shy away from claiming the divine revelation and inspiration of Scripture as the foundation of belief. If this view is correct, postmodernism may require an adjustment of Christian apologetics and ministerial methods but not a reinterpretation of Christian belief.

● The metaphysical alternative stands on the conviction that the way to overcome postmodern relativism and to affirm universal truth is not by way of divine revelation but by way of a “revitalized classical theological metaphysics.”13 John Bolt claims that metaphysics, rather than Scripture, will continue to provide the foundation for Evangelical universal claims to truth. In calling for a metaphysical foundation to overcome postmodernity, Bolt follows the Roman Catholic way to “overcome” postmodern thinking, and agrees with the turn toward tradition of the Emerging Church movement.

● The transmodern alternative stands on the possibility that postmodernism is being replaced by a “transmodern” synthesis of classical, modern, and postmodern ideas that include the objectivity and universality of truth. James Parker III writes, “Transmodernists affirm objective and normative truth without capitulating to a naturalistic scientism, and they affirm true moral values and virtues. They hold out beauty, harmony, and wisdom as real entities. Cynicism based in modernist naturalism and postmodern fictions are replaced by hope—a hope that is based on the very nature of things.”14 Parker concludes: “While one might hesitate to predict the future of this movement (if indeed it can be called a movement), developments on the horizon appear to indicate that a significant (or even monumental) cultural shift is in the offing.”15

If transmodernity replaces postmodernity, the Emerging Church movement in its constructive version will prove to be a fad. For the same reason, however, transmodernity would invigorate the vintage church restorationist theological models. Transmodernity and the Emerging Church movement fit well within Pope John Paul II’s vision to overcome the shortcomings of postmodernity.



A few Evangelical scholars challenge the Emerging Church’s accommodation of postmodern relativism and rejection of universal and propositional truth by engaging it at the epistemological level. They show that the Emerging Church epistemological criticisms and commitments have been hasty and superficial.

Paul Kjoss Helseth shows that neo-Evangelical theology is not modernist but classical by assessing Old Princeton theology’s view of Scripture. Princeton Theological Seminary, founded in 1812, fostered what became known as Old Princeton theology, a tradition that lasted until the 1920s of conservative, Reformed, and Presbyterian theology.

The Old Princeton theologians’ embrace of modernity led them to distort the classical Evangelical doctrine of Scripture into an indefensible precisionism and inerrancy. Post-conservative theologians argue that while battling the Enlightenment, Old Princeton theologians embraced a high standard of certainty that modernity demanded. As a result, the argument continues, they transformed Evangelicalism by formulating the inerrantist doctrine of Scripture and propositional theology.

Helseth challenges this opinion by arguing that Old Princeton theologians weren’t rationalists. By studying their views in some detail, he concludes, “Despite what the consensus of critical opinion would have us believe, the Princetonians simply weren’t rationalists.”16 Rather, they “were committed Augustinians who conceived of reason in a moral rather than a merely rational sense.”17 Old Princeton theologians did not use scientific but classical reason, which Helseth labels “right reason.”18 If Helseth is correct in his assessment of their neo-Evangelical epistemology, including inerrancy and propositionalism, did not spring from modernity but from the classical tradition that the Emerging Church embraces.

D. A. Carson correctly points out the regional nature of the epistemological relativism used by the Emerging Church. Briefly put, relativistic epistemology is the American version of postmodernity. He adds the important fact that postmodern epistemology neither cancels the objectivity of knowledge nor argues for the complete socialization of knowledge. He recognizes that postmodernism properly affirms that all human knowledge “is necessarily within the bounds of some culture or other, and can thus truly be said to be a social construct. But to run from this fair observation to the insistence that it is improper to talk about objective truth, or about human knowledge of truth, is merely a reflection of being hoodwinked by that one unattainable antithesis [either we know absolutely and omnisciently or we know socially].”19

It seems that failure to recognize this simple philosophical distinction brings Grenz and Raschke, as they represent the Emerging Church, to build their cases on a faddish conception of postmodernity that ignores two main facts. First, postmodernity does not replace modernity but brings it to its fruition. Second, postmodernity does not embrace social construction denying objectivity. Instead, it argues for the need to reinterpret the nature of objectivity and subjectivity altogether on the basis of an epochal shift from Plato’s timeless to Heidegger’s temporal conception of being.


The End of Foundationalism?

So far, Evangelical theologians and philosophers have chosen neither to pursue the consequences of postmodern epistemology, nor the ontological shift from which they arise. Instead, they level their criticism of the Emerging Church movement by vindicating a soft version of foundationalism. The purpose in so doing is to affirm Scripture as providing a reliable foundation for Christian belief. In short, the epistemological debate between the Emerging Church and conservative Evangelicals is about authority: Should Christians settle questions of belief on the basis of their reading of Scripture or on the basis of their experience as a community?

Paul Helm argues persuasively that even in the postmodern communitarian turn there are foundational beliefs and objective truths.20 J. P. Moreland and Garrett DeWeese correctly describe the foundationalism implicit in the post-conservative version of nonfoundationalism by comparing it with Cartesian idealism. Instead of innate ideas in the mind being the foundation of knowledge, as Descartes thought, definitions of society are the foundations of knowledge for post-conservative theologians. The knower knows only what comes to the mind from society. Society is the foundation of knowledge.

Moreland and DeWeese express their disappointment at post-conservative writers who reject foundationalism superficially. Moreover, “the three theoretical commitments that can be discerned in their writings, which may undercut foundationalism, are either themselves highly suspect, or only do so in the case of extreme versions, as straw men that represent no contemporary foundationalists.”21 They proceed to present a strong argument for a soft version of Foundationalism. In a technical but accessible way, they show that through sensory perception, we can access direct knowledge of reality that provides basic evidence. The “modest foundationalism” they propose accepts perceptual beliefs that could be annulled as properly basic in the foundation of knowledge. Appropriately, they make clear that epistemology assumes ontology. Epistemology assumes “the nature of the knowing subject and the ontology of the acts of perception.”22

The importance of this philosophical affirmation is to vindicate Scripture as a basic source of evidence. “So, beliefs formed on the basis of reading the Bible are properly basic in a way that is . . . parallel to the way beliefs formed on the basis of seeing a red apple are basic.”23 This argument validates the conservative Evangelical view that Christians should use Scripture as the basis of their beliefs, which is precisely what the Emerging Church wants to avoid.



Evangelical theologians recognize the challenges presented by contemporary cultural trends and the need to face them in the tasks of theology and ministry. They think the Emerging Church leaders are going too far, however, when they adapt not only the forms and styles of gospel ministry but also doctrinal contents and the theological methods to the whims of the times.

Ed Stetzer identifies some contributions that the Emerging Church makes to Evangelicalism and also expresses some concerns about it. He correctly believes that the call of the Emerging Church to authentic Christian life, emphasis on the kingdom of God, embrace of the missional turn, promotion of a holistic style of ministry, and rejection of theological reductionism are contributions that Evangelicals should welcome.24 Some of his concerns are the Emerging Church’s underdeveloped ecclesiology, over-contextualization leading to cultural syncretism, and the apparent fear of penal substitutionary atonement.

The Emerging Church movement embraces cultural diversity. This stems from doctrinal indifference and the strong influence of American culture. According to Phil Johnson, it springs from failure “to maintain focus on the truly essential doctrines of the Christian faith.”25 In this context, heresies are no longer experienced as something negative but as the unavoidable result of Christian diversity. Literally, doctrinally speaking, anything goes. Johnson concludes, that the Emerging Church’s “thoughtless celebration of unbounded diversity is a deadly trait”26 that makes the movement impervious to self-correction and criticism. This is an example of the “cultural captivity” of the gospel.

Martin Downes argues that when cultural captivity of the gospel takes place, “the gospel becomes a lost message. It no longer sounds distinctive but resonates with the sound of the culture. This does not necessarily mean that people are kept from hearing about Jesus, the good news, the Bible, or the Cross. The words themselves may remain, but their content is altered by, and adapted to, the dominant cultural worldview.”27 This takes place in the Emerging Church because “the relationship between divine revelation, culture, and theology has been wrongly configured so that doctrine is no longer believed, taught, and confessed as it once was or now ought to be.”28 In the process, then, culture changes the gospel instead of the other way around. This change is of content and even of method.


The Eclipse of Scripture

Gary L. W. Johnson sees the Emerging Church movement as the modernization of Evangelicalism. Put simply, in the Emerging Church movement the modernity that the Old Princeton theologians, Fundamentalists, and neo-Evangelicals fought against has found finally a home in Evangelical quarters. The Emerging Church signals the capitulation of conservative Evangelicals to modernity. Johnson adds a qualification: “Because of the diversity within the emerging church, one must be careful not to overgeneralize. It is obvious, however, that a vocal segment of the emerging church, though claiming to be evangelical, has great affinity with theological liberalism. Non-conservatives are honored.”29

Johnson concludes, “Under the guise of our postmodern context, post-conservatives are moving in the same direction as Schleiermacher and Briggs. Despite their protest to the contrary, they have already begun to go down this same path.”30 This implies that the Emerging Church embraces the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation and the philosophical and theological assumptions from which it works.

A. B. Caneday notes that the Emerging Church’s view of Scripture displaces the authority of the Bible from the text to the inaccessible work of the Spirit. In other words, the words of Scripture are not the words of God but the words of human beings and therefore of tradition. The word of God is the elusive work or action of the Holy Spirit that takes place beyond the realm of human words.

The displacement of Spirit and the rejection of actual meanings of the words and texts of Scripture are characteristic of modern theology. Through these characteristics, Post-conservatism is mobilizing against the “commitment to the reliability of Scripture, to Scripture as the source of theological construction, and to the nature of theological task being one of reflecting first on Scripture as the grounds for both theology and life.”31

This view of Scripture is unacceptable for conservative Evangelicals. “The Reformers’ so called ‘Scripture principle’ identified the Bible as God’s words in human speech.”32 Moreover, William G. Travis reminds Evangelicals that belief in the inerrancy of Scripture was “fundamental for J. A. Bengel the most noteworthy Pietist Bible scholar of the eighteenth century; was present in the beginnings of the Wesleyan movement; was integral to the holiness movement and its denominational spin-offs; and was a given among the majority of the Pentecostals.”33

Correctly recognizing that “Scripture is the most fundamental of all fundamental doctrines, since it is the fundamental on which all the other fundamentals rest,” Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe give a disapproving evaluation of the Emerging Church’s view of Scripture. According to them, “Grenz and McLaren are not only postmodern but they are also post-Christian. Their rejection of the classical orthodox view of Scripture is sweeping. It includes a rejection of the correspondence view of truth, a rejection of objective truth, propositional truth, and inerrant truth in Scripture.”34

To the issues of biblical inspiration and authority, Douglas Blount adds the all-important issue of interpretation. Interpretation always involves presuppositions and assumptions, which, according to him, are based on personal or communal “taste.” On this basis, he faults Emerging Church theologians for defining their presuppositions based on the “taste” of postmodern culture instead of on the taste of the “apostolic faith.”35 This choice determines biblical interpretation in the Emerging Church and further weakens the message and role of Scripture.

D. A. Carson summarizes well the Emerging Church view of Scripture by pointing out that “Grenz’s reformulation of the doctrine of Scripture is so domesticated by postmodern relativism that it stands well and truly outside of the evangelical camp (whether ‘evangelical’ is here understood theologically or socially/historically).”36 By drifting away from Scripture and building on tradition, the Emerging Church seems to be the undoing of the Reformation.



The postmodern turn to the community that Grenz embraces means that the doctrines of the church are not true in an objective sense. Instead, community doctrines are “true”37 for the community of faith that formulates them and agrees to use them as “rule of life.” Thus, doctrines have only “intrasystematic” “church community” status.38 A. B. Caneday criticizes Grenz’s view of doctrines as describing the beliefs of the community for the community but not referring to truths in the real world. The theological approach of the Emerging Church, in good modernistic fashion, assumes that truth ultimately belongs to the domains of science and philosophy, not of religion or theology.39

Regarding the general approach to theology, Ronald Gleason suggests that in the Emerging Church there is a theological paradigm shift “away from soteriology toward ecclesiology.”40 This view moves closer to mysticism and union with Christ, and therefore closer to the church and away from forensic justification as central to the study of salvation. Simultaneously, however, Gleason argues that this shift fits the basic subjectivism of the modern approach to theology that places the individual and communities as sources of beliefs and understanding.

Arguing from the writings of Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck on theological method, Gleason suggests that even though theologians properly draw materials from “Holy Scripture, Church’s Confessions, and Christian Consciousness [the believer],”41 they should maintain a proper equilibrium among them. Theologians achieve this balance when they give precedence and pre-eminence in their method to the Holy Scripture. Precedence and pre-eminence mean that “the whole of Scripture must prove the whole (theological) system.”42

Not surprisingly, conservative Evangelicals have strong disagreements with the Emerging Church’s theological and doctrinal views. Focusing on Brian McLaren’s rejection of the doctrine of hell, Greg D. Gilbert concludes that McLaren “has misunderstood the gospel as a whole.”43 His reason for such a serious indictment is that McLaren has lost sight of “the meaning and centrality of the cross, he has all but ignored the eschatological and spiritual character of the kingdom of God, and he has done everything in his hermeneutical power to read the traditional doctrine of hell out of the Bible. All in all, there does not really seem to be much of the gospel there left to deny.”44

Adam W. Greenway summarizes “the most consistent criticism” leveled against the Emerging Church by the various authors of the volumeEvangelical Engaging Emergent and elsewhere, as “the overarching lack of concern for doctrinal content and precision.”45 He correctly concludes that Emerging Church theology “resonates with twentieth-century neo-orthodoxy: dynamic views on Scripture’s inspiration and avoidance of descriptors like ‘inerrant’ and ‘infallible,’ emphasis on Jesus’ human nature and moral example rather than divine essence and redeeming sacrifice, strong commitment to social justice and ministry, discomfort with Reformational theology, ecumenism, center-left political values—the list goes on.”46

The crucial disagreement between the Emerging Church and Evangelicalism revolves around the interpretation of the gospel. Emerging Church leaders think that the problem with Evangelicalism is not only methodological but also theological: The message itself must “evolve” and “change.” According to Greenway this is not acceptable to Evangelicals because Emerging Church leaders advance a message that “hardly resembles the evangelical gospel of grace.”47



Evangelical reactions to the Emerging Church’s ecumenical embrace of Roman Catholicism exhibit the fragmented and even contradictory ecclesiologies held by Evangelical denominations. Not surprisingly, both sympathetic and critical evaluations of the ecclesiology of the Emerging Church can be found.

Travis Barbour and Nicholas Toews agree with the Emerging Church’s attempt to mediate between liberal and conservatives in the church but challenge the methodology of “revolution” embraced by Emergents and favor “evolution.” In other words, they disagree with the method but not with the goal. In so doing, they implicitly accept the Emerging Church as part of the broad Evangelical ecclesiological experience. Following a similar approach, F. Leron Shults sees no danger in the fact that “at its core, the emerging movement is an attempt to fashion a new ecclesiology (doctrine of the church).”48 On the contrary, he believes the Emerging Church’s ecclesiological experience sheds light in the ongoing reflection about how to make the Christian Church better. Consequently, he studies the Emerging Church phenomenon to enhance the Evangelical ecclesiological understanding. Ecumenism does not come into the picture of Shults’s evaluation.

From an Anabaptist Mennonite perspective, Alan Stucky sees close similarities between the ecclesiological experience of Anabaptists and the Emerging Church movement. Consequently, he does not perceive the Emerging Church’s implicit ecclesiology as a threat to Evangelicalism but rather as a kindred community from which to learn. According to Stucky, “The Emerging Church resembles sixteenth-century Anabaptism in striking ways.”49

Core similarities between Anabaptism and the Emergent Church are discipleship (following the way of Jesus) and living in community. But the most significant parallels revolve around the ecclesiological notions of decentralization of power, intentional involvement of the members of the church, “and the Kingdom of God for understanding the mission of the church.”50 While recognizing the significant differences between the two movements, Stucky concludes that “they seem to be two cars driving in the same direction on the highway of faith. They have enough affinity for each other that interaction between the two is important and will, hopefully, bear much fruit in the future.”51 Stucky seems to assume and embrace an ecumenical approach to ecclesiology and therefore comes close to the Emerging Church’s emphasis on ecumenism.

Mark Devine provides a positive evaluation of the Emerging Church movement by arguing that it includes two streams, one friendly to classical Evangelical doctrines and the other adverse to or wary of them. By disconnecting doctrines from ministry and mission, he welcomes the many positive points he believes the Emerging Church is advancing in attempting to be the Christian Church. The assumption is that different sets of theological and doctrinal understandings will aid in achieving the Emerging Church ecclesiological emphases on: (1) genuine community characterized by authentic relationships; (2) becoming aware of the meaning of the gospel and sharing it by way of cultural contextualization; (3) experiencing the gospel from within a missional mindset; and (4) recovering narrative, history, and mystery. Devine argues that Evangelicals should be open to engage Emerging Church pastors and theologians who affirm the doctrinal beliefs of conservative American Evangelicals with an irenic spirit.52 On the other hand, Devine’s approach seems to advocate a much less open attitude toward emerging Evangelicals who challenge the traditional doctrines of Evangelicalism.

Paul Doerksen is less sympathetic to Emerging Church ecclesiology because he sees it adapting too readily to the surrounding culture. In his view, the appropriate Evangelical relation to culture is contextualization. According to him, this approach blurs the discontinuity that should exist between the church and the world. Nevertheless, although Doerksen is critical of the Emerging Church’s ecclesiology, he seems comfortable with the ecumenical view of the church.53

Larry D. Pettegrew warns against the obvious rapprochement of the Emerging Church with Roman Catholicism at the foundational levels of worship and spirituality: “The medieval church is not admirable. As a whole, the medieval church did not proclaim the gospel, or justification by faith, or believers’ baptism, or the imminent return of Christ, or separation of church and state, or freedom of conscience, or the autonomy of the local church, or proper view of the Lord’s Supper. . . . The list could be lengthy. Some of the best literature from this period—the writings of the mystics, for example—shows people desperate to find a relationship with God, but hardly succeeding. And the worship style of the medieval church, regardless of how beautiful or reverent it might seem, was a poor substitute for genuine Christianity.”54 Implicitly, this evaluation warns against the ecumenical bend to Rome espoused by the Emerging Church leaders.

Gary Gilley points out that “the vintage church has been waylaid by medieval Catholicism, which we must remember may have experienced the spiritual through the senses, but nevertheless was an apostate religion. Simply providing unbelievers with a religious experience, which they might interpret as an encounter with God, may do them more harm than good. Just as the seeker-sensitive church saw felt-needs as the means of connecting with unbelievers, so the emerging church sees spiritual experience. The philosophy is basically the same, just the methods have changed.”55


Back to the Future

Millard Erickson believes that postmodernity and its effects on the Emerging Church have produced a lack of clarity that has brought further fragmentation into the already divided Evangelical coalition. He believes, however, that Evangelicals are beginning to emerge from this situation and proposes several characteristics that will enable them “to find the landmarks.”56

Erickson works on the conviction that postmodernity is beginning to be transcended and that the way ahead involves a going back “to values and ideas of an earlier period, although they will not simply be a repetition of an earlier form.”57 According to Erickson, to emerge from the fog of postmodernity, Evangelical theology should be global, objective, practical, accessible, postcommunal, metanarratival, dialogical, and futuristic.

● To be global, Evangelical theology should listen to theologians from around the world and be open to their insights.

● To be objective, Evangelical theology should use a correspondence theory of truth and metaphysical realism. Moreover, it should embrace a “neo,” “soft,” or “modest” foundationalism, as advanced by philosophers William Alston and Robert Audy, found in Reformed epistemologists like Plantinga and Wolterstorff, and embraced by Evangelicals like J. P. Moreland and Garrett DeWeese.

Additionally, Evangelical theology should build on a “post-new” historicism that leaves behind “old” and “new” historicisms. The old historicism attempted to determine historical facts and drew conclusions from them. The new historicism arrived at a conclusion and then justified it by creating historical data to fit it. Instead, the “post-new” historicism will seek what really happened in the past while accepting its own historical conditionedness, yet seeking to minimize it.

● To be practical and accessible, Evangelical theology should work in close connection with the practice of ministry. It should be a ministerial theology, addressing and embracing the whole church by relating to life and human predicaments.

● To be postcommunal, Evangelical theology should not be based on the community but on Scripture. Yet it should also “be thoroughly familiar with the culture into which one wishes to speak the Christian message, and to contextualize the message in such a way as to be better understood.”58

● To be metanarratival, Evangelical theology should affirm the universality and exclusiveness of Christianity vis-à-vis all other religions and philosophies.

● To be dialogical, Evangelical theology should interact “with different theologies, considering thoughtfully their claims, and advancing its own with cogent argumentation.”59

● To be futuristic, Evangelical theology should anticipate what is to come and prepare for it “so that its answers will not be merely to the questions that are then past.”60



The Emerging Church responded to tradition and culture as a reform of neo-Evangelical American Protestantism. Unlike the Protestant Reformation that evolved outside of the walls of the Roman Catholic Church, the Emerging Church has originated and is evolving inside the walls of Evangelical denominations. As a sector within Evangelicalism, the Emerging Church is in the early stages of development. Its full theological and ministerial shape is still in the future. Having inherited five centuries of Protestant ecclesiological fragmentation, the Emerging Church is strongly motivated and focused to overcome it by engaging in ecumenical theology, ministry, and ecclesiology.

Not only Luther and Calvin but also Emerging Church theologians and ministers develop their theological systems using Roman Catholic ontological and metaphysical foundations. Although rarely recognized, studied, challenged, or interpreted, implicitly these principles provide the hermeneutical foundations for both Evangelical and Emerging Church theologies and ministries. They provide the real operative basis for theological and spiritual unity not only among them but also within the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches from which they inherited them by way of tradition.

After the two initial centuries when Protestantism gradually emerged from Scripture, challenges from science and culture confronted its unstable and underdeveloped theology for the next three centuries. During that time, Evangelicals responded to the challenges of modernity by way of apologetics, the inerrancy of Scripture, and intra-ecumenical Evangelical alliances, but failed to produce a grand theological and philosophical synthesis. Arguably due to this absence, during the 20th century, the ground of the Protestant Reformation began to shift progressively from Scripture to philosophy, culture, and tradition in the spiritual, theological, and ministerial experiences of Evangelicals. This might help to explain why early in the 21st century, the Emerging Church movement has turned for theological and spiritual guidance to theological, philosophical, and spiritual synthesis produced by liberal Protestantism and Christian tradition.

Thus, radically departing from the American Evangelical tradition, the Emerging Church does not react to the teachings of modern philosophy and science as serious challenges to its understanding of Scripture and the doctrines of Christianity in general and Protestantism in particular. This may help to comprehend why, when facing the absence of simple answers to modern scientific and philosophical challenges to Scripture and Christian doctrines, Emerging Church leaders feel free to follow the example of Christian tradition and their liberal Evangelical predecessors who have progressively accommodated Bible interpretations and teachings to the dictates of philosophy, science, and popular culture in the areas of theology, doctrines, ministry, and worship. In short, failure to develop a grand philosophical and theological synthesis of Evangelical Christianity in the face of modern philosophy and science has brought an influential sector of young Evangelical leaders to adopt the well-developed classical and neo-Orthodox syntheses and their correspondent secularizing effects on Scripture, theology, doctrines, worship, music, and liturgy.

Because of its strong philosophical commitments, grass-roots engagement, and simultaneous origination, the Emerging Church movement does not seem to be a passing fad as some Evangelicals leaders think. Instead, it appears to be a new stage in the historical and theological development of American Evangelicalism.


Fernando Canale, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.



1. Alan Stucky, “Anabaptism and Emergence: Collision or Convergence,” Direction 39:1 (2010):19, 20.


2. William D. Henard and Adam W. Greenway, Evangelicals Engaging Emergent: A Discussion of the Emergent Church Movement (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Publishing Group, 2009).


3. Jim Shaddix, “To Preach or Not to Preach: An Evangelical Response to the Emergent Homiletic,” in Henard and Greenway, ibid., p. 283.


4. Roger Oakland, Faith Undone: The Emerging Church a New Reformation or an End-Time Deception (Silverton, Ore.: Lighthouse Trails Publishing, 2007).


5. Ibid., p. 284.


6. Ibid.


7. Ibid., pp. 289, 290.


8. Ibid., p. 293.


9. Ibid.


10. Ibid., p. 304.


11. Douglas Groothuis, “Truth Defined and Defended” in Millard J. Erickson, Paul Kjoss Helseth, and Justin Taylor, eds., Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004), p. 70.


12. Kwabena Donkor, “Postconservatism: A Third World Perspective,” in Erickson, et al.,Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, op. cit., p. 214.


13. John Bolt, “Sola Scriptura as an Evangelical Theological Method?” in Gary L. W. Johnson and Ronald L. Gleason, eds., Reforming or Conforming: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2008), p. 92.


14. James Parker III, “A Requiem for Postmodernism—Whither Now?” in Erickson, et al.,Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, op. cit. p. 321.


15. Ibid.


16. Paul Kjoss Helseth, “Are Postconservative Evangelical Fundamentalists? Postconservative Evangelicalism, Old Princeton, and the Rise of Neo-Fundamentalism,” in Erickson, Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodations in Postmodern Times, ibid., p. 238.


17. Ibid.


18. Ibid.


19. Ibid., pp. 46, 47.


20. Paul Helm, “No Easy Task: John R. Franke and the Character of Theology,” in Johnson and Gleason, Reforming or Conforming: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, op. cit., pp. 93-111.


21. J. P. Moreland and Garrett DeWeese, “The Premature Report of Foundationalism’s Demise,” in Erickson, et al., Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, op. cit., p. 89.


22. Ibid., p. 93.


23. Ibid.


24. Ed Stetzer, “The Emergent/Emerging Church: A Missiological Perspective,” in Erickson, Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, op. cit., p. 106.


25. Phil Johnson, “Joyriding on the Downgrade at Breakneck Speed: The Dark Side of Diversity,” in Johnson and Gleason, Reforming or Conforming: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, op. cit., p. 213.


26. Ibid., p. 214.


27. Martin Downes, “Entrapment: The Emerging Church Conversation and the Cultural Captivity of the Gospel,” in Johnson and Gleason, ibid., p. 224.


28. Ibid.


29. Ibid., p. 227.


30. Ibid., p. 226.


31. A. B. Caneday, “Is Theological Truth Functional or Propositional? Post Conservatism’s Use of Language Games and Speech Act Theory,” in Erickson, et al., Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, op. cit., p. 156.


32. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Scripture and Tradition,” in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 149.


33. William G. Travis, “Pietism and the History of American Evangelicalism,” in Erickson, et al., Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, op. cit., pp. 278, 279.


34. Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, “A Postmodern View of Scripture,” in Henard and Greenway, Evangelicals Engaging Emergent: A Discussion of the Emergent Church Movement, op. cit., p. 107.


35. Douglas Blount, “A New Kind of Interpretation: Brian McLaren and the Hermeneutics of Taste,” in ibid., p. 126.


36. D. A. Carson, “Domesticating the Gospel: A Review of Grenz’s Renewing the Center,” in Erickson, et al., Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, op. cit., p. 50.


37. __________, Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), p. 42.


38. Ibid., pp. 150, 151.


39. A. B. Caneday, in Erickson, et al., Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, op. cit., p. 150.


40. Ronald Gleason, “Church and Community: or Community and Church?” in Johnson and Gleason, Reforming or Conforming: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, op. cit., p. 174.


41. Ibid., p. 187.


42. Ibid., p. 178.


43. Greg D. Gilbert, “Saved From the Wrath of God: An Examination of Brian McLaren’s Approach to the Doctrine of Hell,” in Johnson and Gleason, ibid., p. 268.


44. Ibid.


45. Adam W. Greenway, “Conclusion,” in Henard and Greenway, Evangelicals Engaging Emergent: A Discussion of the Emergent Church Movement, op. cit., p. 334.


46. Ibid., p. 334.


47. Ibid., p. 335.


48. F. LeRon Shults, “Reforming Ecclesiology in Emerging Churches,” Theology Today 65:3 (2009):425.


49. Alan Stucky, “Anabaptism and Emergence: Collision or Convergence,” op. cit., pp. 23, 24.


50. Ibid., p. 24.


51. Ibid., p. 29.


52. Mark Devine, “The Emerging Church: One Movement—Two Streams,” in Henard and Greenway, Evangelicals Engaging Emergent: A Discussion of the Emergent Church Movement, op. cit., pp. 7, 8.


53. Paul G. Doerksen, “The Air Is Not Quite Fresh: Emerging Church Ecclesiology,” Direction 39:1 (2010):7.


54. Larry D. Pettegrew, “Evangelicalism, Paradigms, and the Emerging Church,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 17:2 (Fall 2006):168.


55. Gary Gilley, “The Emergent Church,” in Johnson and Gleason, Reforming or Conforming: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, op. cit., p. 276.


56. Millard Erickson, “On Flying in Theological Fog,” in Erickson, et al., Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, op. cit., pp. 324, 325.


57. Ibid., p. 325.


58. Ibid., p. 339.


59. Ibid., p. 343.


60. Ibid., p. 345.