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Why We're Not Emergent (by two guys who should be) (2)

Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck

(Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008; 256 pp.)

Part Two

A consistent refrain heard among the emergent is that the Christian life is primarily about the journey and our experience along the way, and less about the destination. The result, at least for them, is that “the Christian life requires less doctrinal reflection and more personal introspection,” which “feeds on and into a preoccupation with our own stories” (34). DeYoung identifies what he believes are three problematic implications of this perspective, only two of which I’ll mention.

First, it undermines the knowability of God. All Christians in every tradition have acknowledged that God is inexhaustible. No one will ever know God exhaustively, not even in the glorified state of heaven. But that doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about him accurately. According to DeYoung, “emergent leaders are allowing the immensity of God to swallow up His knowability. In good postmodern fashion, they are questioning whether we can have any real, accurate knowledge about God in the first place” (35).

Here again we find a false dichotomy. Emergents leave us with what appear to be only two options: either you arrogantly claim to know everything about God rationally or you know nothing about him at all. Or if you do know something, it is “personal” or “relational” knowledge. We see here the typical emergent distrust of language and God’s apparent inability or reluctance to communicate truth to the human mind. But this runs counter to everything we see in Scripture and in redemptive history. Says DeYoung:

“The God of the Bible is nothing if He is not a God who speaks to His people. To be sure, none of us ever infinitely understand God in a nice, neat package of affirmations and denials, but we can know Him truly, both personally and propositionally. God can speak. He can use human language to communicate truth about Himself that is accurate and knowable, without ceasing to be God because we’ve somehow got Him all figured out” (37).

On several occasions in reading books by emergents, I’ve come across their appeal to the illustration of the blind men encountering an elephant. One touches the trunk, another the tail, another his leg, and yet another his ear. Each formulates a different understanding of what an elephant is, none of which, however, has an entirely accurate grasp. “But what if the elephant spoke,” responds DeYoung, “and said, ‘Quit calling me crocodile, or peacock, or paradox. I’m an elephant, for crying out loud! That long thing is my trunk. That little frayed thing is my tail. That big floppy thing is my ear.’ And what if the elephant gave us ears to hear his voice and a mind to understand his message (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14-15)? Would our professed ignorance about the elephant and our unwillingness to make any confident assertions about his nature mean we were especially humble, or just deaf?” (37)

This isn’t to deny the element of mystery in Christian experience (another especially popular word among emergents). God will always remain inexhaustible and infinite. But “mystery as an expression of our finitude is one thing. Mystery as a way of jettisoning responsibility for our beliefs is another thing” (39).

A second problem with the emergent view of journey is that it tends to equate uncertainty with humility. To argue that we can accurately know who God is as revealed in Jesus, so the emergents tell us, is “the same as pinning down Jesus and summing up God”, a reflection not only of our stupidity but arrogance. But why can we not have both a humble searching for God, a recognition of his ultimate infinity, together with a measure of confidence, even certainty, that what knowledge we do have of him is true? “There is a place for questions,” notes DeYoung. “There is a time for conversation. But there is also the possibility of certainty, not because we have dissected God like a freshman biology student dissects a frog, but because God has spoken to us clearly and intelligibly and has given us ears to hear His voice” (40).

Again, “it is not a mark of humility when we refuse to speak about God and His will except in the most ambiguous terms. It is an assault on the Holy Spirit and disbelief in God’s ability to communicate rational, clear statements about Himself in human language” (40). This points yet again to the “either-or” mentality in many emergent authors. It is the false dichotomy that says you must know something exhaustively or omnisciently in order to know it truly. “But aren’t we capable of knowing truth unambiguously without having to know it with invincible certainty?” (41) Yes.

This tendency among emergents to insist on the inherent uncertainty of knowledge becomes problematic when “you write books trying to convince people to believe or behave in certain ways” (41). In other words, “radical uncertainty sounds nice as a sort of protest against the perceived dogmatism of evangelical Christianity [which, I might add, often appears to be the primary focus of all emergents], but it gets in the way when you want [to] prove your point” (41). Somewhere in the midst of your rants against certainty and your insistence on the ultimate unknowability of God you will need to be clear about your beliefs if you hope to persuade others they are true.

One example of the celebration of ambiguity among emergents concerns their stance on homosexuality. Let’s be clear about one thing. As Christians we must display the same compassion and kindness toward the broken and struggling as did Jesus. All people should be treated with dignity and love. But that shouldn’t prevent us from drawing a line on ethical issues on which the Word of God speaks. I applaud the desire not to hurt anyone and the recognition that homosexuality in particular is a complex issue. But the refusal of many emergents to take a stance on this subject “also hurts people – it hurts those struggling to overcome sexual temptation, it hurts those gently calling homosexuals (along with other sinners) to repentance, and it hurts those who dare to speak with certainty on the issue” (47).

Following a brief chapter (Two) in which Kluck introduces us to Rob Bell (“He has the requisite black-framed glasses that everyone our age who considers himself learned has these days. I have them too,” confesses Kluck [56]), and his best-selling book Velvet Elvis, DeYoung continues his interaction with the issue of knowledge and propositional truth (Chapter Three).

In particular, he focuses on the emergent view of the Bible. Emergent Christians still love the Bible, or say they do, but for a different reason. The way the Bible functions in their lives has taken on a new shape. The Bible isn’t viewed as the authoritative, inerrant and objective revelation of God that provides us with eternal and timeless truth. It is, rather, a unique collection of literary artifacts that tells a story which we are invited to join.

At the center of the emergent (postmodern) view of Scripture is the disdain for propositional truth. A propositional statement is simply an assertion that can be either true or false. Either what is proposed corresponds to reality (and is true) or does not (and is false). Emergent Christians, however, don’t like to think of the Bible in these terms. They rightly point to the fact that Scripture is filled with stories and parables and questions and poetry and a variety of other literary genres. Christianity, they say, is fundamentally a relationship with a person, not belief in propositions.

Strange thing, though: that last statement is a proposition! To assert that Christianity is a relationship with a person rather than belief in propositions is a propositional statement that is either true or false. Try as they may to escape propositional truth, even emergents must employ a propositional statement to deny them (or to minimize their importance). More important still, this way of articulating things forces us into another false dichotomy, as if to say one must embrace the Bible either as a narrative that leads us into relationship or as propositional statements that call for affirmation.

At the heart of the emergent worries over propositional statements is their fear that it reduces the Bible to a cold and sterile collection of theological assertions that we merely analyze, examine, exegete, and impose on others. There is a measure of truth here. Our aim isn’t merely to dissect the Bible but to be transformed by it. And, as DeYoung rightly observes, “there are scores of freshly minted seminary-trained pastors who bore their congregations with endless word studies and the ins and outs of genitive absolutes” (71). But he is also right to ask, “Why can we only affirm the Bible as family story by denigrating the Bible as a book to be analyzed and theologized? Why not go the more historically responsible route and uphold the Bible as both?” (73)

Like it or not, the Bible is filled with propositional statements that call for a rational, informed response. In fact, one’s belief concerning the truth claims of the Bible’s many propositional assertions has eternal ramifications. Jesus himself said that “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). If we do not believe his claim to be the incarnate Word, we have no hope of eternal life. Yes, Jesus is a living person with whom we want a saving and life-changing relationship. But as DeYoung points out, the emergent movement “seems to be built on reductionistic, even modernistic, either-or categories. They pit information versus transformation, believing versus belonging, and propositions about Christ versus the person of Christ. The emerging church will be a helpful corrective against real, and sometimes perceived, abuses in evangelicalism when they discover the genius of the ‘and,’ and stop forcing us to accept half-truths” (75).

It’s not uncommon to hear an emergent Christian say, “I don't want truth about Jesus Christ. I want Jesus! Don't give me propositions about Jesus. Give me the person of Jesus!” That sounds sweet and spiritual and appealing and passionate. And it is precisely that sort of thinking that sends people to hell! You can't love Jesus Christ without loving propositional truths about him. If you do not embrace what Scripture says about Christ, the word “Christ” can mean anything you want it to mean.

So let me ask a question: What Christ do you believe in? With what Jesus do you long for relationship? Is it the Jesus who is God in human flesh? That's the doctrine, the propositional truth, of the Incarnation. Is it the Jesus who died as a sacrifice for sin, enduring God's wrath for sinners and thereby obtaining forgiveness? That's the doctrine, the propositional truth, of Atonement. Is it the Christ who rose from the dead? That's the doctrine, the propositional truth, of Resurrection. Is it the Christ in whom by faith alone and through grace alone we are declared righteous and saved? That's the doctrine, the propositional truth, of Justification.

Which Christ you believe and what you believe about him are not secondary questions. Is it the Christ of theological liberalism? Or the Christ of the cults? Perhaps you long for a relationship with the Christ of Islam. They believe in Jesus as a great prophet, beloved of God. But not until you assert in theological propositions biblical truths about Christ does your faith mean anything at all.

Reading their literature often leads me to wonder what emergents actually believe about the Bible. They typically avoid using words like inerrant, infallible, authoritative and revelatory, when describing the Scriptures. It’s one thing to insist on the beauty of biblical narrative and its liberating power, “but unless people are convinced that the Bible is authoritative, true, inspired, and the very words of God, over time they will read it less frequently, know it less fully, and trust it less surely” (78).

Therefore, concludes DeYoung, “in our world of perpetual squishitude, why offer people more of what they already have – vague spirituality, uncertainty, and borderline interpretative relativism? Why not offer them something hard and old like the Law in which we delight, and dare to say and believe ‘Thus saith the Lord’?” (85)