Previous article in this series: November 15, 2006, p. 76.
It is our contention that the Emergent church movement, for all its claims of presenting something new, a new perspective on the Christian faith—as in McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity—is not presenting something new at all. It is as old as twentieth century liberalism, be it in new paint. The color in which they dress their instruction may be more hip, garish, and attractive to the contemporary eye (like an Elvis in velvet), but underneath is the same old lead-based painted instruction that served to deaden various Protestant denominations of the bygone century to begin with. The Emergent leaders, like their disowned predecessors, continue to call into question Scripture as reliable truth, its historical facts and doctrines if you will, and to question how anyone can really be sure whether what he or his church sets forth is ‘The Truth’ in any area of the Christian faith and life.
As McLaren said in an interview, “Certainty is overrated…. When we talk about the word ‘faith’ and the word ‘certainty,’ we’ve got a lot of problems there. What do we mean by certainty?…Certainty can be dangerous.” He much prefers “dialogue” and “disagreeing agreeably.”
This has been the song and dance of the liberal theologians past and present. In the Emergent church movement, this beat goes on, be it more contemporary and hip, as they say.
What Rob Bell writes in Velvet Elvis (Zondervan, 2005) is representative.
Bell uses an interesting figure to describe what the doctrines of the Christian faith ought to serve as, likening them to large springs attached to a trampoline—teachings therefore that ought to serve to catapult Christians to heights of lively exhilaration and a sense of freedom (after all, The Truth shall set you free!); this in contrast to what twentieth century ‘modern’ evangelical Christendom has done to these doctrines—turning them into inflexible, immovable bricks in a wall; hence, Bell’s charging past mainline Protestantism with turning Christianity into “Brickianity”—a cute play on words. The following makes his perspective clear:
Somebody recently gave me a videotape of a lecture given by a man who…said if you deny that God created the world in six literal twenty-four-hour days, then you are denying that Jesus ever died on the cross. It’s a bizarre leap of logic to make I would say.
But he was serious.
It hit me while I was watching that for him faith isn’t a trampoline; it’s a wall of bricks. Each of the core doctrines for him is like an individual brick that stacks on top of the others. If you pull one out, the whole wall starts to crumble. It appears quite strong and rigid, but if you begin to rethink or discuss even one brick, the whole thing is in danger. Like he said, no six-day creation equals no cross. Remove one, and the whole wall wobbles (p. 026).
The telling point is what Bell proceeds to use this figure to justify—namely, the dispensability of various doctrines, fundamental ones even, because, after all, a trampoline can continue to function even with a few springs missing.
What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births? But what if as you study the origin of the word virgin you discover that the word virgin in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word virgin could mean several things? And what if you discover that in the first century being ‘born of a virgin” also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse?
…Could a person keep jumping? …Could you still be a Christian?
…Or does the whole thing fall apart? (pp. 026-027).
…if the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it? (p. 027)
Nothing less than the virgin birth, a spring, a doctrine not necessarily vital for the Christian faith.
It makes absolutely no difference to me that on the same page Bell assures us that he himself “…affirms the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more.” Bell is an ordained preacher claiming to speak on behalf of Christ—at least he is called to be doing that—and as such he is not ‘up there’ to tell men what he believes, but what God through His Holy Spirit calls men to believe for the saving of their souls. What saith the scriptures? You know, that parting exhortation of the apostle Paul to Timothy, “Preach the word!” (II Tim. 4:2). This is simply Paul’s way of saying, “See to it that you build on the foundation of the prophets and the apostles, with Christ the cornerstone!” And if not? One is found to be a false witness about God! (I Cor. 15:15).
The great question in connection with a great creedal doctrine like the doctrine of the virgin birth is not, if after all it were found to be ‘untrue,’ whether a person could still be a Christian (by which question, by the way, Bell reduces Christianity merely to a ‘moral, upbeat lifestyle’), but whether there would be Christianity at all.
That Bell implies there could be, tells us what kind of ‘Christianity’ these spokesmen for the Emergent movement have in mind. It really does not need an eternal Son of God at all. Jump on a trampoline all you want, you have just kissed the gospel good-bye.
The next spring to be questioned could just as well be the spring of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The same hypothetical questions Bell raises re the virgin birth could be asked with regards to it—what if men found a tomb in which, etc.?
And how would the apostle Paul answer the Bells of the church? Basically this way—Listen you silly young fool, “…if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching in vain, and your faith is also vain” (I Cor. 15:14).
Likening the great historic doctrines to “springs,” sound it ever so ingenious, is simply a clever ploy to make the Christian faith flexible and changeable enough to accommodate every unbeliever’s denial of this or that doctrine, finding him too a place in the church, and making room for such errors on the pulpit as well, and then calling these denials the ‘Christian faith’ also, because they work for some.
The metaphor the apostles used for their teachings was not “springs” but that of a foundation (Eph. 2:20, I Cor. 3:10ff.) on which the confession of the New Testament church and the faith of its members was to be built. And on this solid foundation only! Sounds to me a lot closer to “Mere ‘Brickianity,'” than to a trampoline with various springs broken and judged unnecessary for true faith. I have for my source something written by the Holy Spirit Himself. What is Bell’s, other than his fertile imagination?
The dishonest liberals who have dismantled Christ’s church brick by brick over the past 150 years have always claimed themselves to believe all the fundamental doctrines, even to the confessing of the infallibility of the Scriptures. Their claim was, they just did not want to make these positions mandatory for others filled with skepticism born of a scientific age. Read the history of Machen and of the PCUSA of the early 1900s, and the doctrinal differences the leading liberals insisted on making allowances for. And then, having secured such allowances (called ‘freedoms’ and ‘liberty of conscience’), these dishonest men in their preaching proceeded to ignore these great doctrines, questioning the relevancy of such for the Christian living (you know, like many today do the doctrine of election—of what real practical use is it?), and in the classrooms of Princeton, under the guise of ‘academic freedom and intellectual inquiry,’ questioning whether any of the great redemptive events had actually occurred after all. “Oh, we personally don’t deny these things may have happened. We are just raising questions. Such questions in the academic setting are good, you know.”
I have things to say concerning such men. They are not for print. Luther probably said it better than I could anyway.
Bell is not the only one speaking the language of the liberals. This is language McLaren uses also.
While I [sic!] believe that actual miracles [recorded in the Gospels—kk] can and do happen,…I am sympathetic with those who believe otherwise, and I applaud their desire to live out the meaning of the miracle stories even when they don’t believe the stories happened as written. (I find it harder to be sympathetic with those who take pride in believing the miracles really happened but don’t seek to live out their meaning) (A Generous Orthodoxy, pp. 60-61).
It becomes plain that the Emergent church movement is about more than producing a brand of Christianity that is acceptable to the culturally savvy of our day; it is at bottom, if Rob Bell is any indication, committed to a Christianity that’s man-centered to its marrow. That this is the ‘faith’ that the movement is in the process of embracing is nowhere more clearly exposed than by Bell’s explanation of the incident of Peter’s failed attempt to walk on the water upon seeing his Lord do the same. Christ caught hold of him and rebuked him as being of little faith. “Why did you doubt?” Jesus states. Doubt whom? No faith in whom? Bell’s astounding answer?
Who does Peter lose faith in? Not Jesus; Jesus is doing fine. Peter loses faith in himself. Peter loses faith that he can do what his rabbi is doing….
…As we read the stories of Jesus’ life with his…disciples, what do we find frustrates him to no end? When his disciples lose faith in themselves. He even says to them at one point, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” The entire rabbinical system was based on the rabbi having faith in his disciples.
…when [Jesus’ disciples] fall short it provokes him to no end. It isn’t their failure that’s the problem; it’s their greatness. They don’t realize what they are capable of…. God has an incredibly high view of people.
God believes that people are capable of amazing things.
I have been told that I need to believe in Jesus. Which is a good thing. But what I am learning is that Jesus believes in me. I have been told I need to have faith in God. Which is a good thing. But what I am learning is that God has faith in me (Velvet Elvis, p. 133-134).
So, believing in Jesus essentially means believing Jesus believes in me.
Yes, I can see how popular this is with the religiously disenchanted of our day. “Open the doors, and see all the people.” What I fail to see is how this differs from Robert Schuller and his megachurch, Crystal Cathedral gospel in any significant way. God believes in you. Now you have to learn to believe in yourself. Not to do so is what constitutes sin.
I do not recall the apostles ever quite taking this approach.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that had faith in a marvel like me!
The post-modern generation has been given its new hymn.
The Emergent church movement is not a correction of the deadly course down which liberalism led twentieth century Protestantism, but an acceleration down the same road. It breathes the same spirit of false ecumenicity that the World Council of Churches does, namely, that the world might become one by Christianity taking the lead and refusing to judge what anyone teaches as false and contrary to truth. As McLaren makes plain, 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 (A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 254).
This is the language of out-and-out liberalism, for whom “to save” means little more than “not to condemn”—no matter what the sin or error. Who really can be sure historic Christianity has it right, and that these other religions are wrong. They too may have the Lord’s approval. Christianity—just one of the ways to live an authentic human life, to have a genuine high-regard for self.
The Emergent leaders may claim to be modern (pardon me, post-modern) reformers of the historic Christian faith. They are not. They are merely ‘repainters’ of age-old errors, and despite new, hip colors they are still applying lead-based paint from the same bucket as age-old liberalism.
The saving God will not honor those who have so little honor for His Only Begotten, or regard for His Spirit of Truth.