Emergent Church Movement (2)

Previous article in this series: November 1, 2006, p. 52.

As stated in our previous article the word that looms large in the Emergent church movement is the word “postmodern.” It is the contention of the movement’s leading spokesmen that society has entered into what must be labeled as the “postmodern” era, and only a Christianity that reckons with and understands what has taken place, and then adjusts its approach and message, is going to be able to communicate in any effective gospel way to this emerging generation.

They contend that a Christendom inflexibly wedded to its past traditions has little to say to this present society in which it (we) find ourselves. Such traditionalism, they are convinced, characterizes most of twenty-first century Christianity—desiring to be fishers of men, but, for all that, using the wrong kind of lures and bait. Don’t be so surprised, then, that you only get a few nibbles, spending whole nights (decades!) catching nothing. It is time to understand that the deep-sea currents where the schools of souls are found have changed; and so has what attracts and speaks to these multitudes.

The prefix “post” affixed to the word “modern” indicates that these men are convinced that the present emerging generation, so influenced by contemporary culture and its perspective towards life, stands in stark contrast to the age it is now emerging from (labeled “modern”). A seismic shift in thought is taking place in reaction to the preceding age.

So the question—what is it that supposedly sets our “postmodern” generation apart from the modern age preceding it?

D.A. Carson offers the following summary, not so much as his own analysis of things, present vs. the recent past, but as the Emergent movement’s view of things.

Modernism [going back to the mid-1800’s-kk] is often pictured as pursuing truth, absolutism, linear thinking, rationalism, certainty, the cerebral as opposed to the affective—which in turn breeds arrogance, inflexibility, a lust to be right, the desire to control. Postmodernism, by contrast, recognizes how much of what we ‘know’ is shaped by the culture in which we live, is controlled by emotions and aesthetics and heritage, and in fact can only be intelligently held as part of a common tradition, without overbearing claims to be true or right. Modernism tries to find unquestioned foundations on which to build the edifice of knowledge and then proceeds with methodological rigor: postmodernism denies that such a foundation exists (it is ‘anti-foundational’) and insists that we come to ‘know’ things in many ways, not a few of them lacking in rigor. Modernism is hard-edged and, in the domain of religion, focuses on truth versus error, right belief, confessionalism; post-modernism is gentle and, in the domain of religion, focuses on relationships, love, shared tradition, integrity in discussion (Becoming Conversant With the Emergent Church, p. 27, Zondervan).

Not exactly an unbiased assessment of past and present. Whether it is fair and accurate is another matter. It reminds me for all the world of the nursery rhyme concerning the difference between little girls and little boys. Little girls (post-modernists) are sugar and spice and everything nice, but when it comes to little boys (those naughty moderns) … well, that’s another thing entirely. Be that as it may, there is little doubt that Carson accurately delineates how the leaders of the Emergent movement perceive things.

What is plain is that the Emergent church movement is a reactionary movement, and the above quote makes plain, as well, just what brand of Christianity the Emergent church is a reaction against (what they want no part of), namely, the confessional, creedal sort.

As far as the Emergent church movement is concerned, a seismic shift in thought is taking place in culture, and the resulting tsunami of change is a good and necessary thing—high time to sweep away ‘hard-edged’ modernism with its lust to be right and in control, shot through with rationalism and closed to any further discussion. It is time to open up a new chapter in Christianity and to move on to newer and better things.

Postmodernism is viewed as a necessary correction of the recent modern, scientific age.

Our quarrel with the above assessment of things is not whether it can be argued that our present culture is undergoing a significant change, together with how society thinks and perceives things. We will grant such. Call it postmodernism if you will. Rather our quarrel is with setting forth this change in terms of being something commendable and attractive, and with describing our present culture as the above quote does, namely, as something that is ever so interested in “relationships, love, shared traditions, and friendly discussions.”

Stuff (or perhaps better—fluff) and nonsense! Unless you mean by that—relationships without lifetime commitments or keeping one’s vows; love without any restrictions or boundaries no matter how perverse; andfriendly discussions that lead to no definite conclusions other than “I am OK, you are OK. Let’s talk some more about this tomorrow.” And certainly, never a reproving word.

Such is hardly commendable, be the main terms ever so warm and fuzzy. But such is the age in which we live. Such is the mentality that the church is called to address and to which we must bear witness.

This present age has a ruling spirit, we grant. It is not so difficult to discern and state. In a nutshell, it is a spirit that refuses to acknowledge any absolutes. Pronouncements of “Thou shalt nots” are not in our present culture’s vocabulary and absolutely go against its grain. We live in a society that views as the height of presumptuousness anyone pretending to know or claiming to have the authority to tell others what the truth is (or what is good, and what is evil) in any area of life. They point out that scientific man once thought himself capable of laying out everything according to scientific, economic, and social laws— dogmatic pronouncements settling once and for all what was foundational and right. But such has proved a mirage. All that the egotistical, dogmatic pronouncements made by the generation of recent past has produced is a society filled with more strife, tension, and estrangement from each other than ever before—settling nothing. And so a society disillusioned with what the past has produced seeks to justify itself in rejecting certitude and absolutes across the board.

The Emergent church movement declares itself committed to making contact with such a generation, and to reviving its interest in and commitment to a biblical, Christ-centered faith. They are resolved to making Christianity vibrant and attractive to the unchurched once again.

On the surface, a worthy goal. But a question remains—how will one go about doing this, with what approach and gospel, especially if one is misreading this present generation to begin with? What do you call a vibrant and attractive Christianity? Attractive to whom, and at what cost?

It is here the deep-rooted errors of the Emergent church movement and its preachers come to the surface.

The Emergent leaders are guilty of a misdiagnosis of the recent, modern church age—not, mind you, in diagnosing the symptom of the problem. Here they are correct. Certainly, as they point out, a spiritual deadness settled over twentieth century Protestantism, a deadness characterized by an indifference to the Scriptures, wedded to an increasing listlessness in worship and any interest in listening to what passes for preaching, which indifference, in turn, has resulted in a deplorable lack of knowledge of God’s Word, and with that, lives of church members that are virtually indistinguishable from the out-and-out worldling. Shades of pre-Reformation Rome! Time for Reformation and spiritual revival indeed.

With all that we could not agree more.

The misdiagnosis is not in identifying the symptoms, this pervasive deadness and indifference to God’s Word in what calls itself Christendom these days, but in what the Emergent leaders consider to be thesource and cause of these soul-withering symptoms, namely, truth set forth in creedal form and commitment to what is called “confessional truth.”

There is, of course, a huge assumption in such a diagnosis, namely, that by-and-large twentieth century Protestantism was committed to maintaining doctrinal propositions and accuracy as set forth in her confessions, and therefore what brought about the lamentable deadness in Protestantism and emptied her churches of life and of being an effective witness to society was her adamant adhering to these confessional statements as “The Truth.”

A poorer misreading of what has gutted Protestantism over the past century and a half and rendered her members listless and indifferent towards spiritual things there could not be.

To be sure, the deadness and indifference to God’s Word by so many self-professed Christians has taken place in churches that have confessions, mainline Protestant denominations that historically are known as “confessionally-based” churches. But that is a far cry from proving that the cause of this deadness to God’s Word as a living, lifetransforming reality is the churches’ insisting that their members (and preachers!) remain doctrinally orthodox and sound.

In fact, twentieth century church history proves just the opposite.

Deadness, indifference to God’s Word, and a great ’emptying out,’ to say nothing of a muting of any witness to surrounding society, set in when churches that were once confessionally sound decided to allow her preachers to call into question the fundamental truths these confessions set forth. To put it simply, room was made for liberalism— that aggressive, mutant, anti-truth virus let loose in the body of the church in the late 1800s.

It was not the truth’s fault, or, if you will, truth set forth in biblically faithful and accurate terms, it was refusal to live by or apply those truths to the hearts, lives, and confession of the members, as well as denominations failing to demand this of her preachers and seminary professors in particular.

All one has to do is consider the history of early twentieth century Presbyterianism, the denominations of Thornwell, the Hodges, Warfield, and Machen, which once were confessionally sound to their core. Read the history of the Presbyterian missionaries who brought the Word of God to China, of what Truths (doctrines) these men with their families believed in and taught, and then consider how the Spirit blessed that work. Talk about the nets filled with teeming multitudes of souls brought to faith and salvation! Talk about impact on the society in which they found themselves! And now are we to believe that it was the commitment of these denominations to doctrinal truth and confessional precision that hindered the members in their lives, their impact upon the society in which they moved, and in being vitally alive and fruitful in missions? Is it sound doctrine and commitment to it as truth that hinders the Spirit in His communicating the Word of God that saves and transforms? As they say, give me a break.

And then consider when it was that this great zeal for the spread of the gospel began to sputter and smoke, and an interest in God’s Word as a rule of life began to blink out—in a word, when the salt of Presbyterianism began to lose its distinctive savor. It is not so difficult to pinpoint. About the time that liberals the likes of the Reverend H. Emerson Fosdick, who disdained mere doctrines (because cold doctrines stood between himself and the PERSON of the historical Jesus, don’t you know!), were given the heart and soul and voice of Presbyterian denominations. That is when. And you think such a mere coincidence? Think again.

When the truth goes out the window, the Holy Spirit and His true fire go with it.

Our point is that, rather than proposing a remedy for this mentality of age-old liberalism, with its deadening effect and its undermining of the authority of God’s Word, the leaders of the Emergent movement are simply continuing the work of those liberal, truth-denying predecessors.

What was the hew and cry of those miserable, dishonest, pious-sounding, early twentieth century frauds in clergy gowns? We are not to be bound by truth as contained in creeds and confessions. Or at least we must be free to interpret them in various ways. Truth is far too large a thing to be put in propositional form, you know. Christ Jesus Himself is the truth, after all, and He is much too large to be contained in confessional, capsulated propositions.

That is what the liberals of the by-gone ‘modern’ century and ‘scientific’ age claimed. This is what the Emergent leaders are saying again, almost phrase for phrase.

Not corrective, but continuation down the same path, though perhaps to a slightly different hip-cadence and beat.

This we intend to demonstrate next issue, D.V.