A Review of
Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church:
Understanding a Movement and Its Implications
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 250 pp.
It is with chapter five, entitled “Emerging Church Critique of Postmodernism,” that Carson begins a more direct evaluation of the movement. I must say, however, that this chapter is less well organized than the rest of the book. At times the content of a section does not always correspond to the subtitle with which it is introduced. Therefore, instead of tracing the argument of the chapter I will isolate and highlight five of Carson’s more poignant observations on Emergent.
(1) First, Carson is happy that some of Emergent’s better thinkers warn against “absolutizing postmodernism” (126), but he is equally frustrated by their failure to explain why. Rarely, if ever, do Emergent authors advise us not to embrace the absurdities of postmodernism because it sacrifices the existence of objective truth, something the Scriptures repeatedly affirm.
(2) Carson cites a statement from McLaren’s book, The Church on the Other Side, to illustrate again his use of “the absolute antithesis”. According to McLaren,
“When we ‘do theology,’ we are clay pots pondering the potter, kids pondering their father, ants discussing the elephant. At some level of profundity and accuracy, we are bound to be inadequate or incomplete all the time, in almost anything we say or think, considering our human limitations, including language, and God’s infinite greatness” (129).
We must be careful, McLaren goes on to say, lest the “words” we employ to describe God and the experience of Christian faith destroy their mystery. The mysteries of faith, he notes, cannot “be captured like fine-print conditions in a legal document and reduced to safe equations” (129).
Carson finds in this yet another example of an absolute either/or disjunction: “Either we can know God exhaustively, or we are restricted to the mysterious” (129). Obviously no one can know God comprehensively. But we can know him! Says Carson,
“although the comparison of elephant and ants is helpful at one level, it overlooks the fact that in this case the ants have been made in the image of the elephant, and this elephant has not only communicated with the ants in ant-language, but has also, in the person of his Son, become an ‘ant’ while remaining an ‘elephant.’ If the ants were left on their own to figure out what the elephant knows and thinks and feels, ‘mystery’ would be too weak a word. Yet in the case of the revealing elephant with whom we have to do, he has told us ants what he is like, what he thinks, what he feels, what he has done, and what he is going to do – not exhaustively, of course, but truly” (129).
No, we cannot reduce God to a formula or domesticate him. But “if this God has disclosed a great deal about himself, is it not appropriate to talk about and think and write and sing about the attributes that he himself has chosen to disclose in the language of the ants? Is this reducing God to a frog in formaldehyde? Surely not: it is merely the mark of faithfulness to the self-disclosure of this gracious God” (130).
(3) Carson devotes considerable space to responding to the Emergent treatment of world religions. Given the reluctance of many Emergent authors to affirm that we can know Christianity to be objectively true, on what grounds do they commend the gospel to non-believers? McLaren asserts that the Christian faith,
“should become (in the name of Jesus Christ) a welcome friend to other religions of the world, not a threat. We should be seen as a protector of their heritages, a defender against common enemies, not one of the enemies. Just as Jesus came originally not to destroy the law but to fulfill it, not to condemn people but to save them, I believe he comes today not to destroy or condemn anything (anything but evil) but to redeem and save everything that can be redeemed or saved” (133; citing McLaren in A Generous Orthodoxy, 254).
But isn’t there a lot of evil in other religions, asks Carson? I would go even further and say that any religion that consciously repudiates the singular and definitive incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ is inherently evil, notwithstanding whatever ethical or social or relational “good” it might otherwise promote (and I am sincerely grateful to the common grace of God for the latter). McLaren does, in the end, argue that it matters “which mission one joins” (134). But why does it matter, Carson again queries? What makes one religion better or worse than another? Could it be that one is closer to the truth than another? If so, McLaren doesn’t appeal to it as a reason to become a Christian.
Paul’s assessment of idolatrous religions in his day was that God had “overlooked such ignorance” (Acts 17:30) but is now commanding all (i.e., adherents of non-Christian religions) to repent! And where, asks Carson, “in either the Old Testament or the New does the revealed religion of Scripture align itself with other religions as one army among many armies to fight evil? Is it not much more typical in the Bible to think of other religions as various forms of idolatry?” (135).
That Christians do not live up to the infallible revelation given in Scripture and, supremely, in the Son is, needless to say, shameful. “But insofar as other religions actually contradict the revelation of God, we claim that these religions are not true revelations at all. In other words, quite apart from whether any religion’s adherents do or do not live up to their own traditions, there is the question of whether or not the authoritative documents of those religions tell the truth” (136-37).
Carson is led to conclude that McLaren has failed to wrestle “with the question of how abominable idolatry is to the God of the Bible. I have not found him coherent and convincing,” says Carson, “precisely because he will not deal with the claims of truth” (138).
(4) Emergent leaders are often quite vocal in their affirmation of the historic creeds of the church (such as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds). In doing so, they also insist that Scripture remains above the creeds and must be allowed, says McLaren “to tweak our creedal understandings and emphases from time to time” (A Generous Orthodoxy, 28). For this I’m thankful. But Carson is right to ask, “why is Scripture given this unique status? . . . Why cannot I hear any emerging leader saying that Scripture is more authoritative precisely because it is God-revealed and true, and that creeds must be tested (and, if necessary, revised) by Scripture, and not vice versa, for precisely this reason?” (142).
(5) Finally, in response to what they perceive as the “exclusivism” in much traditional Christianity, Emergent leaders are often heard to say that we must put “belonging” before “becoming.” The exclusivist approach is to insist that one must first “become” a Christian before he/she is allowed to “belong” to the community of faith. Emergent authors contend, rather, that we should “invite people to belong, welcome them aboard, take them into [our] story (your individual story, and the story of your local Christian community), and the ‘becoming’ may well follow” (146). One example of this strategy is the move by some to open the Lord’s Table to non-believers, much in the fashion of Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edwards’ predecessor in the Northampton church in the early 18th century. The disastrous results of viewing the Eucharist as a “converting ordinance” are evident to anyone familiar with that season in the history of the church in New England.
On the one hand, many Christians are indeed guilty of an exclusivist mentality that cuts them off from contact with the world. The “fortress” mentality of much of western Fundamentalism is a tragic retreat from the spirit of the Great Commission and our responsibility to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.”
But we must also recognize that the New Testament does speak of the church as a distinct community that is organized around a faith placed exclusively in Jesus Christ as Lord. Carson reminds us that biblical “church discipline” presupposes “that ‘in’ and ‘out’ are meaningful categories, or else excommunication, the highest sanction, would be meaningless” (148).
Returning to the historic creeds as illustrative, Carson reminds us that virtually all of them were born out of controversy in which “some people were judged right in the light of Scripture and others wrong in the light of Scripture” (150).
So how, then, shall we embrace the responsibility both to welcome non-believers and to maintain clear distinctions “on doctrinal, experiential, and ethical grounds, between those who are Christians and those who are not?” (152). Carson’s answer is worth quoting in full:
“What we should strive for, surely, is a church that is full of teaching (doctrinal, ethical, historical, spiritual), rigorous in its discipleship, and patently faithful in its exercise of godly discipline – and at the same time a church in which believers know how to communicate with nonbelievers, a church whose public meetings, however full of teaching and discipline they may be, are authentic in all they do, welcoming and warm to strangers, and careful to apply the Scriptures to all of life, with contemporary probings that are simultaneously faithful to Scripture and culturally penetrating. At one level, that church will be saying that you have to become a Christian to belong; at another level, that church will be so authentic in its communication, so warm in its acceptance of people as people, so genuine in its belief and conduct, that outsiders will be attracted” (152-53).
This no easy task, but such is the calling of the church. We should strive in our local churches to make it safe for people to ask hard questions about such matters as homosexuality, abortion, war, together with a wide array of theological issues, without their being unfairly labeled or marginalized. But there also need to be contexts, says Carson, “where biblically faithful answers, true answers, are given to people who want to know what the Bible says or who are willing to be corrected by the Bible or who think their own reading of the Bible could be corrected by readings that are more informed, more mature, and more reasoned” (154).
Our next installment will focus on chapter six in which Carson responds to two representative books on the subject: A Generous Orthodoxy by McLaren, and The Lost Message of Jesus by British authors Steve Chalke and Alan Mann.