Monday, December 26, 2005

Exploring the EM Part 4 - Possible Lines of Critique

I want to be clear at this point. There is much that is positive about the EM, and I have tried to describe the movement in way which emergents themselves will affirm. Furthermore, I believe that many of their explicit criticisms of modernity and evangelicalism are not only insightful and valid, they are also pertinent to our Reformed communities of faith. I believe we in the Reformed traditions are far more modern than we often realize; the EM can provide much needed correctives here, if we are willing to dialogue with them. That said, space and time constraints force me to focus my comments at this point to some problems that I see in the EM.48 We have already hinted at some potential problems.

Carson offers a first line of critique by focusing on the EM's epistemology (we have touched on this above). In a nutshell, he feels the EM has not been critical enough of itself in its embrace of postmodernism. This may not be that surprising if Carson is correct in his assessment: “A good deal of the discussion of this book could be recast as a debate between the claims of truth and the claims of experience.”49 McKnight himself seems to recognize the weight of this concern: “Is the overwhelming biblical witness to Truth something that is embraced by the Emergent Movement?”50 If the EM wishes to be taken seriously by those who are not yet fully committed to postmodernism, it must do a better job of critiquing that postmodernism and demonstrate that it does take seriously the truth claims of Scripture; it must show us how it discerns what is “true.”

Jue opens up a second line of critique, focusing on the way the EM has periodized history. In a nutshell, he argues that they tend to see “scholasticism [as] a form of theological rationalism perverted by Aristotelian philosophy.”51 In other words, emergents view most Reformed systematic understandings of Scripture as a product of the same Enlightenment quest for certainty which postmodernism has already rejected. Scholasticism, counters Jue, describes the method, not the content, of their theology – the content of the Reformation (including its concern for truth) actually bears a deep continuity with Medieval (and even pre-Modern) thinking. There is a reason why the early church of Acts was called “The Way” (cf. Acts 9:2; 19:9,23; etc.) – they were known for their very strong truth claims about Christ, about what it meant to follow him (cf. Mk 8:34), and what it meant to reject him (cf. Acts 4:12). Furthermore, the EM often misunderstands how Reformers viewed reason: it is a servant of faith, not that which establishes or proves faith.52 The Reformation is not in conflict with Augustine, who says “I believe in order that I may understand.” I think both Jue and Carson are right in this regard: the EM needs to evince a more critical reading of history.

Jue goes on to suggest that the EM could simply shift the starting date of the modern age forward and narrow the intellectual roots to the early Enlightenment philosophers.53 This, he asserts, would allow them to retain their basic critiques of modernism without condemning much that is good (according to us) in Reformation theology. While this may sound good at first blush, I believe it is shallow, failing to appreciate fully the weight of the emergent critique of modernity.

First, Jue seems to draw the same type of hard line that he criticizes EM types for drawing – he draws it slightly later, to be sure, but it is still a hard line nonetheless. If the Reformers share a deep continuity with those who preceded them, might we not also expect lines of continuity with those who followed after them? For example, many of the Enlightenment thinkers who embraced rationalism (who Jue willingly labels “modernists”) were themselves raised on the Reformed faith that Jue seeks to retain; while some of them did reject the faith outright, many would have seen themselves in continuity with those who came before, as those seeking to preserve the orthodoxy by contextualizing it afresh. It seems to me that if the EM is guilty of oversimplification in their periodization, we do not really solve that problem simply by adjusting the starting dates of modernity to neatly exclude our pet period. If we find in the Reformation a continuity with what came earlier, we should also acknowledge the continuities with what came after where they exist. We cannot neatly periodize in either direction.

Second, Jue's proposal assumes that EM types would actually like to retain Reformed theological expressions which our tradition holds dear. I suspect most within the EM have little taste for this, because many in our Reformed heritage actually do seem to overemphasize the certainty to be had through reason. The same Turretin who cautioned us to properly value reason, is also quite certain that the existence of God can be “irrefutably demonstrated against the atheists”54 (in nine pages, no less!), and that the world was created in Autumn, rather than in the Spring.55 This are precisely the type of conclusions that make the EM uncomfortable with systematic theology. We see too little appreciation for human limitations in regard to the “good and necessary consequences” which are used to construct the system – while Turretin may not be a “modernist” according to Jue's definition, he nevertheless seems just as confident of his “logical inferences” as he is sure of a substitutionary atonement. There is no sense of proportionality, and this strikes postmodern thinkers as both arrogant and wrongheaded. Similarly, we also need to recognize that many in the Reformed traditions have been just as guilty as dispensational evangelicals of placing great confidence in our “systems” while our personal experience of practical piety has been weak or nonexistent. The EM is firmly against both of these (intellectual arrogance, and faith without deeds), and we in the Reformed circles need to acknowledge the weight of their critiques. Too often we have been overconfident in our conclusions, under-interested in matters of social justice and personal spirituality. We have “taught as doctrines the laws of men” (Mt 15:9).

As a third line of critique, I believe the EM needs to think critically about its hermeneutic, about how it reads Scripture. Yes, emergents exhibit a greater interest in narrative and story, but they actually approach the text in a manner that reveals deep continuity with their dispensational roots. It seems to me they still deal with “the story” at the level of individual pericopes or historical books. For all their claims of “soft” postmodernism, there is still not much “meta” in their narratives.

Practically speaking, this means they have merely shifted their focus from more doctrinal passages (Paul) to more micro-narrative passages (Gospels, Acts). But they seem to demonstrate little awareness of a biblical theological / redemptive-historical approach which finds its meta-narrative coherence in all of Scripture. They do not seem to have discovered the Grand Story into which all the individual pieces of Scripture fit. They love “the Way of Jesus” but do not seem to understand how it represents a rich culmination and fulfillment of what comes before (all the way back to the Garden); they desire to live out “the Kingdom of God” but do not seem to appreciate how Paul, the Epistles, and Revelation explicate that kingdom, fleshing out what it looks like in the life of the church. Furthermore, they demonstrate a remarkable insensitivity for the Reformation principle of “Scripture interpreting Scripture.” As an example of this, consider how McKnight (in good emergent fashion) ponders the reality of boundaries in the church:
There never has been a time, to my knowledge, when the Church has been really good at being genuinely boundaryless and borderless and unprejudiced. The mandate of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:28 — that in Christ there should be neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, and neither male nor female — has never really become customary for the Church. ...

...it is a fact that in most parts of the world and throughout most of Church history, the Church has operated with segregation at each of these levels that the Apostle Paul raised as critical: ethnic, socio-economic, and sexual. Suburban churches and urban churches rarely achieve demographic sameness when it comes to comparing society and local community of faith.

The emerging movement is no exception...56
McKnight then turns to the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-36 (“as you did/did not do it to the least of these, so you did/did not do it to me”) and asks this: “The question for the Emerging Movement is this, and it is the question the Lord will someday ask it and each of us: How did you respond to the least of these?”57

McKnight's analysis strikes me as typical of emergent thinkers: he takes seriously the teachings of Jesus; he looks carefully at the practices of the church; he observes that churches often create boundaries and barriers; and he even finds a passage which suggests the church should in fact be boundaryless. This is commendable. But what McKnight has failed to do (at least in this particular instance) is to consider the teachings of Scripture as a whole. He has taken Galatians 3:28 as his hermeneutical control; he does not seem to consider that elsewhere Paul specifically tells us to enact boundaries – he draws distinctions between men and women, between teachers and non-teachers; he charges us to guard doctrine; he actually calls for people to be put out of fellowship in places.

The point here is not about quibble over McKnight's conclusion – rather, I believe this example illustrates how the EM's emphasis on praxis over systematics inevitably leads them to draw conclusions without first asking the heremeneutical questions about how all the passages fit together, about how we make sense of the whole. In fairness, McKnight believes I overstate my case here, pointing out that he has sufficiently defined his own hermeneutic elsewhere. He acknowledges, however, that the EM is often fuzzy in this regard: “I can’t say I know the EM hermeneutic – but I would hazard to say that the Bible is processed through Jesus and the way of Jesus.”58

My point is simply that the EM has not shown how it is possible to draw any conclusions at all (in regard to praxis) without first engaging in some form of systematic thinking (either implicitly or explicitly). Everyone who draws conclusions from the biblical story necessarily has a hermeneutic (a method for determining how the parts fit together in the whole). Unfortunately, emergents seem quite content to leave their hermeneutic unexpressed and thus unexamined. The EM needs to be more critical of itself in this area.

This leads to a fourth line of critique which is similar. The EM tends to frown on systematic or propositional expressions of truth. In many ways, the EM reminds me of evangelicals who embraced the phrase “no creed but Christ.” This is one of those phrases that sounds meaty at first blush, but ultimately fails to carry water. The problem, of course, is that everyone has a creed – everyone has a core content which they believe to be true (and essential). The only real question is whether they will express those credal commitments explicitly or not, and how they will deal with the inevitable disagreements that arise when their core beliefs finally surface. Often, the only option for the dissenter is “Agree or leave.” This was the case in evangelical churches; I see no reason why it will not also be the case in EM churches.

Fifth and finally (and this is more of a question than a critique), I wonder if the EM has fully considered the implications of locating their identity in a philosophy of relationship rather than in a particular content. It seems to me that there are other examples of groups whose identity is cultural rather than creedal – Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, and Jews come to mind. In many cases, these groups have struggled to maintain the kind of personal, experiential spirituality which the EM seems to desire. How will the EM keep itself from drifting into secular liberalism? How will the EM avoid accomodationism?

In conclusion, then, we have seen much of what the EM is for, what they are against, and what forces they are reacting to. I wish to conclude by reaffirming that there is much in this movement which I find very appealing; I think we in the Reformed movement need to listen to and appreciate their critiques. At the same time, I think emergent types need to do a better job of critiquing their own movement. At its best, the EM is refreshingly honest; at its worst, they sometimes sound a little too postmodern, a little too uncertain of anything. At times, emergents sound like they believe more than they are willing to say, and when that happens the result is very inauthentic. At some point (if it keeps growing), the EM is going to have to get more specific about how to determine who is in and who is out, and I hope this process will force them to think more critically about their epistemological and hermeneutical commitments. In the meantime, we in the Reformed community need to be more willing to get involved in the conversation. I believe we have much to contribute, and we just may learn something while we are at it.

(note: if you want to see the footnotes, please refer to the full .pdf version)

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