A Review of
Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church:
Understanding a Movement and Its Implications
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 250 pp.
My extensive summation of Carson’s book will conclude with this seventh installment. We’ll look at his brief response to Steve Chalke’s book, The Lost Message of Jesus (Zondervan), together with a few comments on the significance of the many biblical texts Carson cites concerning the importance of truth. I won’t take time to summarize his final chapter which consists of “A Biblical Meditation on Truth and Experience” derived from 2 Peter 1.
At the heart of Chalke’s book is his conviction that the Church today “has become a barren and unfulfilling experience, which fails to address, let alone answer, life’s deepest questions and concerns. People haven’t stopped going to Church because they are too modern-minded, too scientific, too rational or too enlightened to be spiritual. Rather, when they apply the formulated message proclaimed by so many preachers and evangelists to the tough realities of day-to-day life, they become disillusioned” (13-14). Chalke believes, and I would agree with him here, that the answer is to recover the fullness of who Jesus was and what he came to accomplish on behalf of a lost humanity.
Chalke is clearly indebted to the writings of N. T. Wright (who endorses the book) for his understanding of the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed. The focus of our Lord’s message and ministry, he contends, is less “how to go to heaven when you die” than how to be fully equipped in the here and now to expand the power of love and acceptance and reconciliation and justice. Or, to put it in Carson’s words, “the positive thrust of the book is its emphasis on the practical outworking of the great truth, ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8,16). Christians are to love the loveless, embrace the untouchable, feed the hungry, forgive the unforgivable, heal the sick, and welcome the marginalized” (182). Again, I applaud Chalke’s emphasis in this regard, although I do believe Jesus addressed the issue of heaven and our eternal reward, quite extensively in fact.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case with those who elevate divine love as the all-controlling and all-consuming attribute of God, other crucial features of God’s character are minimized. Chalke mocks the God of Jonathan Edwards (56) and argues that the Bible “never defines him [God] as anything other than love” (63). As Carson points out, this is simply false, as a quick look at 1 John 1:5 (“God is light”) and Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4 (“God is holy”) reveal. I’m also reminded of Exodus 34:14 where we read that “the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (cf. Deut. 4:24).
In another place Chalke insists that “Jesus believed in original goodness” (67), not original sin. Carson is quick to point out that “Jesus explicitly assumes that people are evil (e.g., Matthew 7:11, ‘If you, then, though you are evil . . .’) and asserts that from the human heart come ‘evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile you’ (Mark 7:21-23)” (183-84).
Chalke also redefines the experience of being “born again” in terms that make little sense to me. When Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again he
“was simply saying that entering into God’s Kingdom or shalom is about seeing the world differently and adopting his new agenda. It is about dropping the crushing, life-draining, religious dogma and discovering the freedom that God loves you as you are and that his Kingdom is available to you” (148).
Certainly these elements are the fruit of the new birth, but how can he so easily dismiss the necessity of a supernatural, inward regeneration in which the life-giving presence of God is bestowed on those who otherwise “were dead in . . . trespasses and sins” and were “by nature” children of wrath (Eph. 2:1-3)?
Chalke, like McLaren, dismisses penal substitution as “a form of cosmic child abuse” (182). Carson responds appropriately:
“The judgment, the wrath, of God, spoken of repeatedly in Scripture, now becomes ‘a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind’; it can scarcely be anything else, once you disbelieve what the Bible says about the odium of human guilt and shame, the offensiveness of idolatry to God, and the certainty and righteousness of judgment” (185).
But no one “who has sympathetically worked through what the Bible actually says about the death of Christ could deploy such condescension. No one who loves evangelicals will use that language. Without exception, competent treatments of what is meant by substitutionary atonement focus on the concurrence of the Father and the Son in the plan of the cross, on the different ways in which both Father and Son suffer, and on the resolution of the Son to do his Father’s will. ‘A form of cosmic child abuse’? The first step in refuting an argument is to state it accurately, not in words that your opponent will understand to be both a massive distortion and only a whisker away from blasphemy” (186).
Carson’s conclusion? Here it is:
“I have to say, as kindly but as forcefully as I can, that to my mind, if words mean anything, both McLaren and Chalke have largely abandoned the gospel” (186).
My final comments focus on Carson’s appeal to the vast array of biblical texts that emphasize the reality of objective truth and our God-given ability to know it, not exhaustively or omnisciently or comprehensively, but adequately. Of the dozens of texts he could have cited, he mentions just over 40. These texts, says Carson, indicate “some of the times the Bible says that words or propositions or reports or proverbs or promises or confessional statements are true. People can tell the truth and thus be true witnesses, or they can tell lies and thus bear false witness” (192). He concludes from this that
“if the emerging church movement, or conversation, wishes to remain faithful to Scripture, it must speak of truth and our ability to know it as sweepingly and confidently as Scripture does. If it does not, its underlying assumptions about epistemology remain fundamentally flawed” (193).
Carson then provides a small sampling of biblical texts that “have to do with ‘knowing that something-or-other,’ where the construction and context show that the content of what is known or believed to be true is a proposition” (193). He cites more than 80 such passages and concludes that after you have read and pondered them a few times “it is difficult to wonder what has gone wrong with both the epistemology and the theology of those who are incessantly made uncomfortable by claims to human knowledge” (200).
I suspect that those who are sympathetic to the Emergent conversation will accuse Carson of “misunderstanding” authors like McLaren and of conducting a theological witch hunt, obsessed with unearthing the slightest doctrinal indiscretion. That’s standard fare whenever one scholar offers such stinging criticism of another. But having myself read McLaren, I found Carson to be both fair and accurate in his efforts to make sense of McLaren’s proposals.
My fear is that some, perhaps many, who are enamored with the Emergent conversation simply haven’t wrestled with the far-reaching implications of McLaren’s theological convictions. Biblical inerrancy, substitutionary atonement, the existence of a personal devil, and the reality of eternal conscious punishment all come under criticism (if not outright denial) in his published works. He appears to embrace an evolutionary framework to account for the natural order, declines to identify homosexuality as sin or non-Christian religions as idolatry, and speaks approvingly of an inclusivist view on whether or not one must consciously believe in Jesus Christ in order to be saved. This latter issue, of course, is currently a hot item of discussion among evangelicals, but it’s important to know where McLaren stands on the subject. The reality of divine wrath as an attribute of God is minimized, and his reluctance to affirm the existence and knowability of objective truth was repeatedly exposed by Carson. Call me a fundamentalist if you will, but these issues raise a red flag (well, at least a cautionary yellow one) in my mind, especially when it comes to McLaren’s influence on younger, and often unsuspecting, evangelical pastors. This is why I’m probably more appreciative of what Carson has done than others.
Carson will also be taken to task for his occasional harsh and, what some will call, “uncharitable” conclusions, not least of which is his judgment that McLaren and Chalke “have largely abandoned the gospel” (186). That’s a pretty serious charge. Whether or not it is warranted will largely depend on the importance one places on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. If that model for understanding the saving significance of the cross is biblical, then McLaren, Chalke and others who not only deny it but mock it as “divine child abuse” stand guilty as charged. However “secondary” or “peripheral” one may think the majority of issues addressed by Emergent authors may be, the cross is inescapably foundational to the very essence and identity of Christianity.
Finally, some will fault Carson for focusing too narrowly on McLaren and not engaging other, more theologically cautious, Emergent authors. This was my primary complaint with the book. Carson briefly defended his reason for this, but I doubt if it will silence his critics. Personally, I would have preferred that Carson reduce the space devoted to an analysis of postmodernism and instead offer his critique of the many other contributions from those involved in the “conversation”.
I’ll bring this long series of studies to a close with Carson’s comments on Galatians 1:8-9. I pray that all of us, on whichever side of the debate we may fall, will heed his advice:
“At what point does an ‘orthodoxy’ that is more ‘generous’ than God’s become heterodoxy? Not for a moment do I want a vote cast in favor of the narrow-minded, whining, fault-finding, picky, sectarianism with which Christianity has sometimes been afflicted. Rather, what is called for is biblical fidelity. One can be biblically unfaithful by being much narrower than Scripture; one can be biblically unfaithful by being much broader than Scripture. Both sides call it faithfulness; both sides are seriously mistaken. How can we know? By returning to Scripture, again and again, and refusing to be uncomfortable with the categories that God himself has given us, but seeking to learn and digest and believe and obey the whole counsel of God, as far as we see it, without flinching, without faddishness” (208).