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Why We're Not Emergent (by two guys who should be) (3)

Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck

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

Part Three

I want to go on record that I love doctrine! When I explore the theological complexities of the Incarnation of the Son of God, my heart is strangely warmed. When I think deeply about his death and how it propitiates the Father and redeems and saves and breaks the power of the enemy, I get goose bumps up and down my spine. When I reflect on the relationship between the human and divine in the one person of Christ Jesus, and then contrast and distance the orthodox view from that of heresies such as Arianism and Socinianism, I get positively giddy!

In fact, I can’t think of anything more important or crucial for all Christians individually and the church corporately than to take whatever steps are necessary to deepen and intensify our knowledge of God and the revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. To take this glorious truth, together with others as they are set forth in Scripture, and to formulate carefully worded statements of faith that identify what we call Protestant evangelical orthodoxy is one of the greatest joys I know as a Christian. And to differentiate these views from those that are outside the boundaries of biblical revelation, so that heterodoxy is seen as the soul-threatening, hell-deserving enemy which I believe it to be, is the responsibility of every Bible-believing Christian.

Do I believe that any statement of faith is impeccable, perfect in every affirmation and denial? No. We can never be comprehensive or infallible in our interpretation of the biblical text or in the theological conclusions we derive from it. Deep humility and a conscious awareness of our weaknesses and personal prejudices, together with a consistent dependence on the Holy Spirit and a readiness to alter our affirmations when they are shown by Scripture to be ill-conceived, must characterize all our theologizing. But theologize we must. Our eternal destiny hangs in the balance.

Human frailty and cultural influences notwithstanding, we must articulate as best we can what we believe are the foundational and non-negotiable truths of Holy Scripture. The Bible itself speaks unapologetically of “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27), and of “the standard of teaching” to which we are committed (Romans 6:17), and of a “gospel”, deviation from which calls forth an eternal “anathema” (Galatians 1:9), and of a “pattern” of “sound words” and the “good deposit” that have been entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:13-14), and of “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

In case you hadn’t figured it out by now, that in itself is more than enough to put me at serious odds with many, if not most, in the emergent movement. I fully expect that if they were to read the previous four paragraphs I would be immediately branded as a cold and calculating rationalist (or modernist) who’s impervious to change, closed to conversation, who arrogantly thinks he’s got the unfathomable God figured out, freeze-dried, and packaged away (I’m drawing on the language of Brian McLaren). I doubt if there’s much I could say to convince them otherwise, so I won’t waste my time trying. But this does lead us into a brief discussion of the emergent resistance to a focus on propositional truth about the Son of God and suspicion of all things theological.

As noted in the previous installment of this series of studies, a common refrain among emergents is, “Just give me Jesus!” In depth theological analyses and carefully articulated doctrinal formulations concerning the person and work of Christ (and a variety of other biblical truths) are viewed as a hindrance to vital spiritual relationship not only with Jesus but also between Christians. The determination to identify biblical orthodoxy, so we are told, only serves to sterilize our otherwise fertile faith and to divide by creating boundaries that determine who’s “in” and who’s “out”, who’s “orthodox” and who’s “heterodox”.

A typical statement is this one by Erwin McManus (who’s actually less “emergent” than most): “The power of the gospel is the result of a person – Jesus Christ – not a message. The gospel is an event to be proclaimed, not a doctrine to be preserved” (108). But as DeYoung and Kluck point out, “how is the gospel event we proclaim different than [sic] a message? And how is a message about Jesus – say, who He is and what He did on earth – different than [sic] doctrine? We can tell people about Jesus every day until He returns again, but without some doctrinal content filling up what we mean by Jesus and why He matters, we are just shouting slogans, not proclaiming any kind of intelligible gospel” (108).

It’s one thing to passionately proclaim, “It’s all about Jesus!” But what is it about Jesus that we are supposed to be all about? It’s one thing to rant against creeds and religious rituals, “but once we say something about why Jesus is glorious and what His life was like and what it accomplished, aren’t we settling back into dogma and religion again?” (108).

This is again related to the emergent distaste for refined theological statements and what evangelicals have traditionally referred to as “orthodoxy” or right belief. As I read the New Testament it seems evident that the authors conceive of “orthopraxy”, or right behavior, as flowing out of orthodoxy. The ethical imperative is always grounded in the theological indicative. One need only observe Paul’s comments in Romans 12:1 and Ephesians 4:1 as examples. Emergents, on the other hand, will often simply conflate the two while placing primary emphasis on right behavior.

But we cannot afford to ignore the biblical emphasis on certain truths as foundational to all Christian living. As DeYoung and Kluck argue, “People go to hell for believing the wrong things” (see Gal. 1:8). “People within the church should be corrected when they believe the wrong things” (see Titus 1:9). And “People are sometimes to be kept out of your house for believing the wrong things” (see 2 John 9-10; 112).

There simply is no gospel without theology, for “as soon as you say Jesus died and rose again for your sins according to the Scriptures, you have doctrine. You have a message about what happened in history and what it means. That’s theology” (113).

The authors are especially helpful in pointing out the emergent dislike for doctrinal boundaries. Statements of faith in which we articulate not only what we affirm but what we deny are rare in emergent churches. At most, they will cite their affirmation of the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. But doctrinal affirmations, says Tony Jones, national coordinator of Emergent, are “a modernistic endeavor that I’m not the least bit interested in” (117).

I must confess that when I visit a church or navigate to their website, that’s the first thing I look for. I want to know what boundaries they draw and why. I want to know if it is biblical Christianity for which they stand and whether truth is important. After reading Jones’s comments, DeYoung wonders, “Are there no doctrinal beliefs (besides believing in statements of faith) or ethical behaviors (besides undefined lovelessness) that put one outside the camp?” (118) You may find this distasteful, but the fact remains that “Christianity cannot and does not exist without boundaries” (118). There is much to which we say Yes theologically, but there is also much to which we must say No.

There are times in reading emergent literature that one wonders whether they have a concept of theological error and doctrinal falsehood. If theology is merely a dialogue and journey and conversation, but does not at any point reach a definitive and intelligible conclusion about what is true and false, on what grounds do we assure anyone of eternal salvation and others of eternal peril?

An excellent, as well as deeply disturbing, example of this tendency among emergents is the book by Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Talk of God. I hope to review this regrettable book in a subsequent article, but here I only take note of it as typical of the biblical and theological skepticism among many emergents. Rollins, founder of the Ikon community in Belfast, writes with an acknowledged skepticism about ever knowing anything truly about God. Of course, he does have a few things to say about God, for “that which we cannot speak of,” he concedes, “is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking” (123). But when we talk about God we can never make him known. It is as “unknown” that we “know” him. Citing DeYoung, “we believe in God but remain dubious concerning what we believe about God, to the point that we disbelieve the God we also believe in, ‘holding atheism and theism together in the cradle of faith’” (123; holding atheism “in the cradle of faith”; hmmm, now there’s a thought). Thus, says DeYoung, in summarizing Rollins, “idolatry is not worshiping the wrong God but believing ‘that our ideas actually represent the way that God and the world really operate’” (123). So when we speak about God we aren’t really speaking of God but only of our understanding of God.

DeYoung responds:

“I keep wondering, am I missing something here? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes; we do see through a glass dimly; we do not fully understand God; we don’t know God as God knows Himself; our words can’t capture the essence of God. God is greater than we can conceive – but what about the 1,189 chapters in the Bible? Don’t they tell us lots of things about God that we are supposed to do more than doubt and not understand? Aren’t the Scriptures written so that we might believe and be sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see and even proclaim this faith to others?” (123-24).

He finds it hard to believe, and include me here as well, “that the apostles went off into the world telling people about the God they couldn’t speak of and inviting the people to journey with them as they grew in their mutual un/knowing about the God they disbelieved in” (124).

Where does that leave us? Again, I can no better than quote DeYoung at some length:

“Young people will give their lives for an exclamation point, but they will not give their lives for a question mark, not for very long anyway. Once the protest runs out and the emerging church has its own blogdom, and conferences, and church networks, and book deals, there will be no exclamation point, and all that’s left will be ethical intentions and passionate appeals for kingdom living. This will not sustain a movement – the protest will for a while, but once that’s gone there will be no great vision of God, no urgent proclamation of salvation, no eternal judgment or reward at stake, just a call to live rightly and love one another. That message will sell on Oprah, Larry King, and at the Oscars, but it won’t sustain and propel a gospel-driven church, because it isn’t the gospel” (127-28).

I hope after reading that paragraph you see why I think you need to read this entire book. To be continued . . .