God is dead. So the famed Nihilistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said. In the wake of God’s death, many men tried to replace Him with various atheistic philosophies of life - and failed. When God died, we lost our sense of right and wrong and no longer knew up from down, or if there really even is an up or down. We became unchained from objective truth and were left floating aimlessly in subjective space. The twentieth century man adapted this into his worldview and soon postmodernism would embrace this lostness as the truth of reality. Ask any student today how they determine right and wrong, and they will most likely tell you something to the effect of ‘I do what’s best for me.’ Our culture has embraced the postmodern(1) mindset(2), and because of this no longer view religious or ethical truth to be knowable. Religious truth is found in whatever makes me feel good, and ethical truth is found only in what makes me happy. The natural question for us as Christians to ask is, ‘how do we have conversation with people who do not believe in objective truth?’ More commonly put like this, ‘how do we present the gospel to our culture?’
This question is a perfectly normal question for us to ask, and we are by no means putting our faith in jeopardy by asking it. A whole group of people have been asking this question now for nearly 20 years. They’re known as the emerging church. This loosely-knit group of Christians have been seeking to answer this question and have done so in different ways. The answer usually comes down to format and church structure, but occasionally goes further. There is another group of people, however, who call themselves the Emergent Church, and they have taken the questions and answers to another level.(3) If one listens to the questions being asked in by the Emergent people, you’ll find questions which touch on the very nature and heart of Christianity itself. It’s good to ask the questions, but if the answers are not Biblically sound and/or objectively true, then there is a problem.
There are a number of things that are taking place right now in the movement which really touch a nerve. I will mention four of them. The first is the embrace of postmodernism; the second is the loose view of Scripture; the third is the de-spiritualization of the gospel of Christ; and the fourth is an all-inclusivism in the Church, which looks a lot like universalism.
The first and obvious point of discussion is the embrace of postmodernism by the Emergent Church. When you listen to their conferences and read the books that are put out by Emergent authours, you get a firm sense of a deep-seated postmodern worldview. The reason this is a problem is that the postmodern worldview is entirely antagonistic to the Biblical worldview. The postmodern motto is that there is no objective truth; Christ says ‘I am the truth;’ postmodernism says that ethics and moral statements are grounded in the individual; God is declared to be just, righteous, holy, etc. in an objective way; postmodernism states that religious truth is unknowable; God declares ‘I AM,’ Paul’s whole goal of life was to ‘know Christ;’(4) postmodernism says that moral truth is unknowable; the Bible tells us to be righteous and holy, assuming that we know what it means to be righteous and holy. There simply is no way to define Christianity in terms of postmodernism. God challenges false gods in Isaiah chapter 41 to present their case and show that they are truly gods. He tells them to tell of the future things and of the past things to show their divine nature. He appeals to argumentation and evidence to show His divine character. When Christ shows Himself to Thomas after the resurrection, He invites Thomas to touch the wounds so that he might believe. Paul appeals to the resurrection which occurred in real time and space, in history, to show the truth of Christianity in 1 Corinthians chapter 15. We lose these things by trying to define Christianity in a postmodern way. The Bible is not a postmodern book, nor is Christianity a postmodern religion. By jettisoning our ability to reason with people, we lose the foundation on which our faith was built. In a postmodern context, Christianity is just one of many ways in which people can find religious satisfaction; just one competing narrative in a sea of religious narratives. Faith is shut up to an arbitrary leap instead of being grounded in truth. Francis Schaeffer commented on this problem many years ago in his book The God Who Is There. He said:
The problem which confronts us as we approach modern man today is not how we are to change Christian teaching in order to make it more palatable, for to do that would mean throwing away any chance of giving the real answer to man in despair; rather, it is the problem of how to communicate the gospel so that it is understood.(5)
The proper response for us is not to redefine the gospel, but to understand how to communicate the gospel to a generation which does not believe in the objective reality of religious and ethical truth. As Kierkegaard said, ‘It is not the truth that is in need of men, but men who are in need of the truth.’(6) The Bible tells us simply that ‘the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing...’(7) The message of Christianity will always sound ridiculous to the majority of unbelievers, but we are not to change the message to become more palatable to people, nor are we to stop preaching it because not many people are believing in it. We do a great disservice to the truth of the gospel by ripping the foundation out from under it.
The second point that I would like to talk about follows implicitly from the acceptance of postmodernism. Within the postmodern context, words do not have meaning in and of themselves, but derive their meaning from the hearer. In other words, the meaning of a sentence lies not in the originator’s intention, but in the hearer’s interpretation. This just rings false from the beginning. Perhaps the best way to understand where this idea leaves us is through an illustration. I was at a bar one night and happened to get into a little conversation with a fellow from Norway who had proclaimed his love of sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll. I took the opportunity to inquire about his worldview and quickly found out that he paid homage to the god of randomness. He waxed eloquently about how everything was random and how there is no objective truth. He was thoroughly postmodern. When he told me that words had no meaning and that meaning was entirely dependent on the hearer, I stopped him and asked him if I could punch him in the face. When he said no, I told him that he had understood properly the message I was communicating. I had, in fact asked him if I could punch him in the face. He understood exactly what I was asking, but the meaning did not lay in what he interpreted but in what I had said. I had effectively communicated my intent to him, and he was able to respond to me in a way I understood. If words had no meaning apart from the recipient’s understanding of them, then I simply could have punched him in the face after he said ‘no,’ and simply explained that I thought his no meant yes.
Words and ideas are not dependent on the listener for their meaning. The meaning comes from the originator. Communication occurs when the listener properly understands. How does this relate to the Emergent Church? It relates at precisely the heart of Christianity - our understanding of the Bible. If meaning is entirely dependent on the hearer’s understanding, then the message of the Bible is entirely subject to our interpretation. This is in fact what some in the Emergent Church are teaching. Brian McLaren states:
Our interpretations reveal less about God or the Bible than they do about ourselves. They reveal what we want to defend, what we want to attack, what we want to ignore, what we're unwilling to question.(8)
The Bible has a message to it, and that message is not subject to our interpretation. Rather we are to allow the Bible to dictate the way we live our lives. We believe it to be the Word of God, and therefore the meaning lies not in what we think about it, but in what God has intended to say. By adopting an improper hermeneutic,(9) they have opened the door wide open for all kinds of heresy and misunderstandings about God - and they are rampant in the Emergent conversation.
Finally I’d like to talk about the de-spiritualization of the gospel of Christ.(10) Martin Luther said ‘There is a need for a social gospel to supplement the gospel of individual salvation… Only a 'dry as dust' religion prompts a minister to extol the glories of heaven while ignoring the social conditions that cause men an earthly hell.’(11) He was well aware that the gospel is something that moves men to have compassion on their neighbours. The Emergent Church often blast the Christian world for their inactivity on social issues. They are strong at this point in recognizing that we as Christians should be doing all that we can to help those around us. There have been those in the Church who have pushed for social issues in the past, and there have been those in the Church who have quietly done their own thing to help those around them. People like William Wilberforce and George Muller. While I agree heartily with Emergent on this point, I disagree with the lengths to which they take it. When you listen to them speak and read their books, they focus intently on these issues, and seem to belittle the spiritual reasons why Jesus came. When Christ came he always talked about the issues of the heart. Repentance is always talked about in association with Christ. When the Apostles began to preach, they didn’t preach about bringing in the kingdom of Christ, but about changing the conditions of men’s hearts through their repentance and acceptance of Christ as their Saviour.
Finally I’d like to deal with the seeming universalism which is being accepted within Emergent. There are two types of this that I’d like to deal with. The first is the universal welcome of people to take part in church of Doug Pagitt, and the second is the seeming universal salvation of Brian McLaren. In his presentation which was put out on the Emergent Village’s podcast, Mr. Pagitt talks about how he wants to see his church shaped by unbelievers. He says that the church has always had their theology shaped by unbelievers. Yes and no. What he’s referring to, I believe, is the idea that most of the early theological thinkers were responding to heretics who were writing against Christianity, and so by way of reaction the unbeliever’s are indirectly involved in the shaping of the church’s theology. However I would like to point out that they were never in the church. This view of the church is severely misguided and mistakes at its foundation what a church is. He talks about the church as being a ‘cauldron of theological imagination and participation.’ While I do think that he’s right that the church should be a place for theological imagination and participation, he is gravely mistaken that this is the primary role of the church. The primary role of the church is to be a place of worship to the Lord God by those who believe in Him through His Son Jesus Christ. Unbelievers are not meant to be a part of our community of worship, as Pagitt says.
Then there’s McLaren who makes ambiguous statements about Christianity and leave you wondering whether or not he really is a follower of Christ.
I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu or Jewish contexts … rather than resolving the paradox via pronouncements on the eternal destiny of people more convinced by or loyal to other religions than ours, we simply move on … To help Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and everyone else experience life to the full in the way of Jesus (while learning it better myself), I would gladly become one of them (whoever they are), to whatever degree I can, to embrace them, to join them, to enter into their world without judgment but with saving love as mine has been entered by the Lord.(12)
What this means is anyone’s guess. It sounds suspiciously close to religious pluralism. The very idea that you can follow Christ while maintaining your worship practices in another religion is in stark contrast to Christ’s call to deny oneself and follow Him. By denying ourselves, Christ is calling us to abandon our former way of life and to follow Him in the way in which He prescribed. He talks about the church. He gave authority to the Apostles. The Holy Spirit through the books of the New Testament gave detailed instructions as to how the church is to function. Yet somehow McLaren seems to think that God is simply pleased with a church that is socially active.
The cries of Emergent ring loud and clear, and they seem to have abandoned the true teachings of the New Testament, but make it palatable by insisting that they are truly following Christ. Christ says that many people will claim to have known Him and followed Him, but He will say to them that He never knew them. If the Emergent Church continues in the path that they seem to be happily trekking down, their idea of Christ will eventually become nothing more than the Christ of the individual - each of us make up our own picture of Him. Jesus of Nazareth was a real man who walked this earth in real time and in real history. He made real commands for us to follow. God really meant what He said through the writers of the New (and Old) Testaments. We cannot simply amputate large portions of Scripture from understanding of who Christ is. He has called us to do certain things, and while the Emergent Church is correct in some of their condemnation of the Church in general, they have literally thrown the baby out with the bath water.(13) We cannot undermine the spiritual message of Christ. He called for repentance and rebirth. As Ravi Zacharias said, Christ came not ‘to make bad people good, but to make dead people live.’ The Emergent Church has taken a wrong turn in their understanding of Christianity and of Jesus and they are unintentionally deceiving others with their false doctrines. Christianity is not postmodern. Christianity is not social justice alone. Christianity is primarily spiritual, because, as we believe, the spiritual relationship with God has the most important impact on our behaviour. Do we need to be actively involved in our communities? Yes. Do we need to throw out all orthodox doctrines in order to do that? No. In the final analysis, the Emergent Church is an empty shell bearing the name ‘Christian,’ Severed from truth, it is a futile attempt to shut Christianity apart from the rest of life, and seems to be aimed at social activism rather than meeting the needs of the human heart.
1 Postmodernism is hard to define, but it usually consists of a rejection of absolute truth of any kind (relativism), the idea that words themselves have no meaning (deconstructionism), and a rejection of classical logic.
2 Or so they think. William Lane Craig makes a terrific argument that the idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth in his book Reasonable Faith.
3 Because the topic is so broad and the Emergent Church themselves so loose in organization and structure, I’m going to try and avoid sweeping statements and give specific examples of areas of concern.
4 Philippians 3:8
5 Schaeffer, Francis A.; The God Who is There; p.145
6 Kierkegaard, Soren; Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing; p.144
7 1 Corinthians 1:18
8 McLaren, Brian; A New Kind of Christian; p.50
9 A hermeneutic is a method of interpretation.
10 Unfortunately I lost my sheet of paper with quotes on it, so I won’t spend much time on this issue as I can’t cite them on this point.
11 King, Martin Luther; Unofficial Autobiography; p.179
12 McLaren, Brian; A Generous Orthodoxy, pp. 260, 262, 264
13 Rob Bell in his book ‘Velvet Elvis,’ claims that you don’t have to believe in the virgin birth in order to experience Christianity. He claims that various doctrines taught in the Bible need not be true and are not vital to the Christian faith.