Note: As Gentle Reformation made the switch to its new format, the first three blogs in this series were lost. Many thanks to The Aquila Report for keeping them online! Here are links to articles one two and three Below is the conclusion…better late than never, I hope!
Though it feels like months have passed, it has only been a few days since you learned of your friend’s “Emergent” faith. And yet these days have been packed with weeks’ worth of concern for him. Your recent talk with your eccentric, eager-to-help professor was helpful, and you were especially strengthened by the prayer and Scriptural study which filled many sleepless hours since you saw your friend mark up his copy of the Apostle’s Creed with asterisks.
You’ve called your friend to invite him over, telling him that it’s cheaper to burn coffee at your place than to have it done professionally at the local shop. As you wait for him, your thoughts turn again to the implications of his recasting of the Christian faith.
Given Emergent Theology’s (hereafter, ET) intentionally loose grip on biblical doctrine, you did some research on what its advocates deem distinctively Christian about the movement and how it interacts with other faiths. Addressing the topic of inter-faith relations, Brian McLaren writes: “The church must present the Christian faith not as one religious army at war against all other religious armies but as one of many religious armies fighting against evil, falsehood, destruction, darkness and injustice.” – The Church on the Other Side ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003) p. 87. See also A Generous Orthodoxy, pp. 277-300.
McLaren’s words declare social justice as the top priority of the multifaceted movement of Emergence Christianity. ET’s passion for the hurting is humbling and inspiring, yet McLaren’s words rob the pursuit of social justice of its essential quality, impetus, and staying power: True justice is grounded in the changeless character of our just and holy God who has revealed Himself in Christ. To McLaren, the worship of the true and living God is not a necessary ingredient in the ecumenical effort to ensure justice for all. Rejection of Jesus Christ as the only Savior of men and nations does not seem to qualify as part of the evil, falsehood, and injustice which the church is to redress. Calling upon Christians to unite with the faithful in other religions to oppose social evil, McLaren, unlike every biblical author, regards the worship of other gods as a matter of, at best, secondary importance.
According to ET, the church’s theology ought to take a back seat to its sense of sociological mission; theology should be considered a subset of missiology. But if mission is meant to serve in the name of God, then its purpose and parameters must be defined theologically. Here we see at play the selective agnosticism endemic in ET. McLaren again: “For me, the ‘fundamentals of the faith’ boil down to those given by Jesus: to love God and to love our neighbors.” To those who insist on asking which God McLaren means, he responds: “Whichever God Jesus was referring to.” – Ibid, p.206.
Significantly absent from McLaren’s quick quotation of Jesus is our Lord’s specification of the God we are to love. Drawing from Deuteronomy 6, Jesus calls first for all- consuming devotion to the unique, covenant making God of Israel. Then He commands love for one’s neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). This unbreakable fusion between message and mission permeates Scripture; doctrine drives duty. ET generally lays heavy stress upon Jesus’ second command but does not attribute the same moral, binding weight to the first (and greatest).
ET’s relaxation regarding Who Christian faith affirms gains its advocates desired flexibility regarding what Christians are to do in living out their faith. Free from absolute statements regarding God’s unchanging, holy character, ET becomes free from God’s absolute declarations of what constitutes sin. Thus, the category of social justice may be inflated beyond perennial duties like feeding the hungry to include the contemporary concerns of political correctness. ET attempts to haul up anchors of doctrinal definition on social issues so that the winds of cultural change may fill the sails of the church and guide her onward.
But do we really want a social justice intentionally divorced from the distinctive character of Jesus Christ as revealed in His Word? (Hebrews 13:8, James 1:27-2:1). To sense the danger in such thinking, we need only call to mind, and weep over, the plight of the unborn in our day. The most marginalized, victimized and defenseless people among us are defined by society at large as human lives of less importance, and in some cases, not even human lives at all. Lives are lost for failure to define and defend all human life as inherently precious, bearing God’s image. Not coincidentally, churches which have a hard time affirming the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ and the inspired nature of Holy Scripture, also have a hard time affirming the unequivocal worth of unborn human life. Depending on who controls the terms and definitions, the beneficiaries of social justice today may be its victims tomorrow. As the late Christian philosopher and apologist Francis Schaeffer notes in his classic How Should We Then Live? – “If there is no absolute by which to judge society, then society is absolute.” Or,to apply Schaeffer’s wisdom to today’s largely agnostic spiritual climate, “If there is no knowable absolute by which to judge society, then society is absolute.”
Scripture contains countless counterclaims to agnosticism; Scripture is itself a counterclaim to agnosticism. The Bible strongly counters the idea that to claim certainty regarding biblical truth is a Rationalistic abuse of its intent. Luke could hardly be accused of Rationalistic tendencies, and yet he opens his gospel with these words: “ . . . it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.” The Apostle Paul plainly admits our limitedness in understanding God and His will, but he never expresses or endorses agnosticism with regard to what has been revealed of God and His will. The Apostle who proclaims that in this life we know only in part also pronounced damnation upon anyone who preached a gospel other than his (1 Corinthians 13:12; Galatians 1:8-9). ET ignores these pervasive biblical emphases and glosses lightly over the Bible’s inflexible insistence that people worship only the true and living God. Thus, ET’s citation of Scripture to substantiate its version of Christian theology and mission seems disingenuous. Its interpretive antics beg the question of the ultimate authority by which ET operates, the silent sovereign before whom its principles of interpretation bow.
Opposing ET’s tendency to redefine theology according to sociology is the doctrine ET so staunchly rejects – Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura insists that the Bible, with unique and ultimate authority, drives the engine of ecclesiastical doctrine and practice. It insists that the Word is knowable to the point of acting upon it with conviction, even a justified sense of certainty.
Psalm 19:7-11, among a host of other passages, extols God’s Law for its value in giving understanding. The longest single unit of God’s revealed Word, Psalm 119, is dedicated to the excellence of God’s revealed Word! Even the parts of Scripture which people tend to skip, the genealogies and intensely detailed descriptions of Old Testament worship, reveal God to be very concerned that His people understand His will and His ways with precision. Why is the Lord so meticulous in Old Testament self-revelation? Because all of these Old Testament demands and details point us toward their fulfillment in Christ, the ultimate, climactic revelation of God (Hebrews 1:1-4). Thus, in the New Testament, we find strong emphasis on God’s desire to be known by His people (John 1:1-5, 14, 14:9, 20:31); on our ability to know that we know God (1st John 5:20-21); and on our increased accountability to heed God’s Word because of the new fullness and clarity with which it has been revealed (Hebrews 2:1-4).
ET’s disingenuous hermeneutic is also apparent in Brian McLaren’s self-conscious refusal to recognize the issue of hell (and heaven for that matter) as central to the church’s identity and mission in this world. To the question of who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, McLaren blusters back: “Why do you consider me qualified to make this pronouncement? Isn’t this God’s business? Isn’t it clear that I do not believe this is the right question for a missional Christian to ask?” – A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 122.
McLaren rightly chastises the church for not thinking seriously about the topic of hell. Surely, much rejection and abandonment of the gospel occur because it unflinchingly declares the awful reason for its necessity (Romans 1:16-18ff). But it just won’t do to deal with this heaviest of issues by putting it out of our minds, ostensibly to serve Jesus more effectively. The problem, of course, is that Jesus preached about hell, profusely. In addition to what we like to hear from Jesus, He also gave us “hard” sayings. True discipleship is forged in the crucible of such words. Rather than trusting Christ, as did a weeping Paul in Romans 9 and a reeling Peter in John 6:60-71, ET finds affinity with the crowd of those departing from Jesus’ teaching.
ET’s running from these and other words of Christ reveals the ultimate irony of its efforts, fatal to its claim of being a truly Christian movement: The voice excluded from this self-described Christian conversation is the voice of Christ Himself.
Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) professor Carl Trueman writes: “Once God has, in effect, been prevented from speaking to us, we lose our ability to speak about him. Thus, this loss of a doctrine of scripture involves the downplaying, if not the ignoring, of the voice of the awesome and holy God; and such a move can only be made when we lose sight of God himself . . . We have bought in to the random incoherence of postmodernity, judge the Bible by the standards of our own cultural expectations, and rejoice in the problem as if it were the solution.” – On Meeting Joe Frazier, reformation21.org
Having heard your friend decry the doctrine of Sola Scriptura as an idol of the modern era church, you’ve found from God’s Word that Sola Scriptura is in reality the ultimate iconoclast. Scripture’s clear, divinely authoritative statements about God and His character forbid our fashioning Him after the philosophies and fads of our culture. And when God’s Word occupies the place it deserves in our faith and life, the church will not be content to serve merely as well mannered social activists, nor will we attempt to justify a harshly polemical, socially inconsequential way of faith and life. We will hear our Savior’s call to self-denial and proclaim to our fellow image bearers in loving Word and deed, the claims of our King (Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 9:26).
The doorbell rings and you go to greet your friend. You know that your time together will involve more listening on your part, but you also know that you must speak. Though disquieted a bit about what your friend may say, you find peace in what Christ has said. You mean to speak to your friend with the Word of your Savior, desiring to be used by God in the healing of your friend’s hurting heart. The air filled with the smell and sound of percolating coffee, highly caffeinated, you open the door, eager to engage your friend in truly Christian conversation.