DA Carson and the Emergent Movement
by Scot McKnight
Saturday, April 16, 2005
As I told Andrew Jones in my blog
at his site, I am a former colleague of DA Carson’s at TEDS; I had the office
next to his for years; he is my friend; I consider him an expert; I do not have
the book but I am in contact with those who know what is in it. I can sketch
here only the briefest summaries of what is there, and I am encouraging
everyone to buy it. And I am encouraging everyone to read it carefully; avoid
reactionary responses and listen to this most careful of scholar. I expect all
of us to learn from him.
I'll be posting several blogs about this topic.
Before we can even begin to discuss the proposals and evaluations of DA Carson
in his must-read forthcoming book, we have to observe that “defining our terms”
is both fundamental and (at the same time) extremely difficult. For instance,
what does “emergent” mean? Will we use it for Robert Webber’s form, Brian
McLaren’s form of the Emergent, Doug Pagitt’s form, Steve Chalke’s form, Andrew
Jones’ form, the Willow Axis form, or will it be for the many, many who have
adapted the Emergent label and are using its ideas in rather normal churches?
What has to be admitted up front is that Emergent is not a “fixed” or “reified”
Object that can be described the way one can describe Wrigley Field or the
Lincoln Tomb or the White House.
DA Carson has himself for a long time been involved in trying to get the term
“Evangelical” more “accurately” defined (footnotes deleted) as he and other
theologians have sought to find that powerful connection of the Reformed
Churches from Calvin to Jonathan Edwards to more 20th Century forms of that
theology. But, others have fought hard to maintain a looser, sometimes calling
it a more “sociological,” definition. And one thinks here of Don Dayton (who
thinks it embraces the Wesleyan movement) or others who think it is even much
wider than that (as can be seen in Randy Balmer’s romp through the churches, in
his “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”).
So, let’s issue this up front: it is not going to be easy to define Emergent,
and so when one gets into this discussion, it is best if one recognizes one is
defining and responding to, if I may be so bold to adapt an expression from
Hemingway, “A Moveable Feast.”
On top of that, it just so happens that Emergent work is done in the trenches
and not in books and journal articles: you learn about the Emergent by talking
to its leaders and its people, by reading its bloggers, by attending its
conferences and conventions, and by attending its churches. Over and over I’ve
been told this: “Scot, you can’t read this stuff in some book. No one has put
it all together. You have to get on the internet and attend the churches.”
Now to DA Carson… who is singularly qualified to get into this issue because of
his biblical expertise and his previous examination of pluralism, “The Gagging
DA Carson says this book is rooted in the lectures he gave at Cedarville in
February 2004. He thinks a self-identity has been established in the Emergent
movement and he says that he will have to generalize to move the discussion
forward. The Emergent movement recognizes that culture has shifted and that a
new church is “emerging.” DA Carson admits the variety and boundary-shifting
ambiguity of the Emergent movement.
He sees the following characteristics of the Emergent Movement: (1) protest and
he describes the story of Spencer Burke with his problems with spiritual
McCarthyism, (2) protest against the modern and here he will show that
postmodernism, while open to various meanings, is essentially discontinuous
with modernism and is an epistemology that is anti-foundationalist, (3)
protesting on three fronts – not just evangelicalism and modernism but also the
#1: Does “emerging” refer to the postmodern culture in all its varieties, or to
the church hat accompanies that shift in culture, or to the ideas that are part
of that culture, or to the gospel that responds to that culture, or to the
gospel taking shape in a new way in a new cultural paradigm? The answer to this
question matters immensely. And I’m not sure DA Carson, or even some of the
Emergent folk, are all pointing at the same “thing” when they speak of
#2: Is the “emerging” movement fundamental a church of protest? And, if so, is
the primary target of the protest evangelicalism? What are its targets?
#3: Is the postmodernist epistemology of the Emerging folks (and one should not
simply equate postmodernists and the Emergent folks) essentially affectional
over against rational? inclusive vs. exclusivist? authentic vs. the absolute?
is social history more significant that the history of ideas?
#4: Is “emergent” or “integral” thinking superior to traditional absolutist
#5: Has the Emergent movement understood culture accurately? Does it appeal to
Saturday, April 16, 2005
I didn't think I'd get to a
second part until tomorrow, but I just got the book for review, so here we go.
In this second installment we will look briefly at what DA Carson says
positively about the Emergent movement. I am sad to say that I’ve seen some
bloggers jump on his case before they have listened to him, and they are doing
just what they are accusing him of doing. Whether or not some Emergent folk
think Carson has listened to them is not the point; the point is to listen to
him. (As I am writing this I got a paper copy for review. So, now I’m going on
my own read.)
DA Carson finds some positive features in the Emergent movement and he sees
five features that are commendable, even though from what I see he doesn’t
expound these five features by showing what and how this takes place among the
Emergent leaders. In fact, this section comes off as a backhanded compliment.
Ten pages of compliments, no genuine citations of their writings and how they
do these things, and then the rest of the book a pretty stiff critique. I say
this only because it is true (and authentic): it appears to me that this is
cursory affirmation because that is how one is supposed to treat an opponent.
First, they “read the times” and by this he refers to how they are concerned
with understanding culture. Second, there is a push for authenticity among the
Emergent folk. Third, there is a genuine perception of our own – whoever we
might be and wherever we might be – social placement in the world and how that
shapes our gospel understanding and mission. Fourth, evangelism is important or
reaching our modern culture. Fifth, if I understand what I am hearing, DA Carson
sees another good thing in the Emergent concern with historic Christian
traditions. He concludes the chapter by showing that other churches are doing
similar good things – and this comes off (to me) as a bit of churlish behavior.
Do the Emergent think they are the only ones? (If they do. and forgive me DA if
I’m wrong here, then they need this reminder. If not, why close down this
chapter by affirming other traditions for what is good about the Emergent?)
If this is what Carson sees in the Emergent Church, I think he sees some good
things. I’m wondering if this is all he sees – is there no good in their
commitment to “community”? to issues of the Bible that are not held by some
evangelicals to be part of the gospel – like social justice and the environment
and business? what of their courage “to start all over if they have to”?
#1: Has DA Carson given the Emergent leaders the nuance they deserve on how
they read the times? McLaren, for instance, has a pretty sophisticated (at
times) understanding of some things and he differs from others in significant
#2: What does “authenticity” mean for the Emergent folk? The Willow model has
for years been keen on the word authentic and by this they mean the leaders
have to stand up and take their medicine when they have done wrong (and many
sermons have such illustrations – Hybels and the whole gang), but is this what
Emergent is talking about? My understanding of the Emergent is that “authentic”
refers more to the human condition, an almost Augustinian sense of humans being
flawed and everything about them is flawed. If this is the case, we have to ask
if Carson’s perception here is genuinely an Emergent understanding of
#3: What role does our own particularism play both in understanding the gospel
and fleshing out the gospel? Huge, huge question, and I think at the heart of
much of the Emergent. In other words, is the Emergent movement every bit as
much an “ecclesiology” as it is an “epistemology”? Further conversations with
my source will help me see what DA Carson sees here. Most of what I’ve seen so
far focuses exclusively on the philosophical epistemological question, though.
#4: I have been impressed of late with what the Emergent movement means by
“evangelism,” and I’m quite sure here that different groups have different
understandings. Some, of course, see it as the old gospel shaped for
postmoderns but others have shifted the paradigm dramatically (Doug Pagitt, for
example). So, the question becomes, What is evangelism for the Emergent? Here
this one: is it discerning what God is doing in the world and “joining in” and
“saying Amen” and “working with God”? Or is it gospel preaching to postmoderns?
Big, big questions here.
#5: I’ve heard a bundle over the last two years about the Emergent concern with
the classical traditions, including especially Eastern Orthodoxy. What I have
wondered, and many will perhaps know more than I, is whether this is the result
of trying to figure out how the 2d and 3d century churches “embodied” the
gospel in their day so we might learn how to “embody” it in our day? Or, is it
a genuine turn to the classical traditions in order to find a more authentic
display of the gospel? I’m not sure if DA Carson talks about this.
Saturday, April 16, 2005
In this third installment of
DA Carson’s important new book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church,
we will briefly summarize and ask questions of his third chapter, a chapter on
how well (or how well not) the Emergent leaders understand contemporary
Let me emphasize again that DA Carson opens with comments on the diversity of
the Emergent movement, and so any comments that “this doesn’t apply to us” is
not fair to him. He speaks to four weaknesses in its cultural analysis of
modernism: first, its tendency toward reductionism (which may or may not be
similar to his admitted need at times to “generalize”); second, condemnation of
confessional Christianity; third, some theological shallowness and intellectual
incoherence; and fourth, a particularization of the above three.
Here’s his big point: “Modernism seeks rational certainty and therefore veers
toward absolutism, because it has refused to recognize the essential
perspectivalism in all human knowing” (p. 57). Because modernism is behind us,
even evangelism has shifted from its previous mode (and here he uses McLaren as
1.0 Emergent analysis of Modernity
Let’s look at each briefly because this is a long chapter (pp. 57-86). The
analysis tends to the reductionistic when it comes to modernism and how
Christianity expressed itself in modernity: it is not just linear thinking and
the rational. History is not this neat, DA Carson contends. This distorts
modernism and, because the Emergents root theology and praxis in this
distortion, it really matters what Emergents think of modernity because they
think confessional Christianity expresses that modernism. At this point there
is a lengthy set of prayers from CH Spurgeon, which DA Carson thinks
demonstrate the holistic approach and the relational approach that was not
characteristic of Modernity but is to be found in the Emergents (and this from
a Modernist pastor – though I must wonder if the “Puritan out of his time” can
count as a Modernist, and my reading of the Emergents is that they are not
responding to Spurgeon, and I even wonder if many even know who he was or have
read much of him). He then appeals to JI Packer, and a conversation he had with
Packer, and then suggests that the “either/or” approach – spirituality or
doctrine – doesn’t apply to Packer either. He also appeals to JG Machen. In
other words, has the Emergent movement distorted the Christian faith and praxis
of the modernistic period?
Second, he finds in the critique of culture an “almost” universal condemnation
of confessional Christianity. This is part of his earlier evaluation that the
Emergent movement is a “protest” movement. Here he critiques McLaren’s famous
“Neo” for damning the good with faint praise, for always leaning toward the
story-form vs. the systemic form, and for never giving any credit to modernism
or the Christian faith of that era. In sum, there is an imbalance. DA Carson,
and I fear that some will miss this, then admits that there is an imbalance at
times in the Christian faith of modernity. (Why Carson says he can think “of
only three or four African preachers who can expound Romans well” is beyond me.
This is bad writing, and he is simply making a point: Africans tend toward the
narrative portions of Scripture.) Grant DA Carson his point: he admits that
modernity lended itself toward doctrinal passages, and postmodernity will lend
itself to narrative portions. (Very nice section here on his father’s
The analysis by Emergents of modernism is theologically shallow and
intellectually incoherent. The theological shallowness pertains to any and
every system because of the impact of the Fall. [Let me offer a brief rave of
my own: I would to God that Calvinistic theology would embrace the implications
DA Carson is here speaking of, and an implication that I’m not sure DA Carson
follows through on and it is: it boggles that those who preach the most about
the noetic impacts of the Fall (our mind is affected) seem to think it has
impacted their system the least. I apologize if this sounds terse and out of
place, but it is as good a time as any to let this point be made. And, so far
as I am reading this book, Carson would admit to it (even if he thinks my
pointing at his Calvinism is only one example of what I am saying).] Its
incoherence is that it finds too much good in other things and not enough good
in the Christian tradition. DA Carson then makes a point I have been making for
years in my classes and mention somewhere in “The Jesus Creed,” namely that
tolerance is big, bad, bogey word today that has become a billy club used
against anything that disagrees with another. He argues that the Emergent folks
are tolerant of everything but modernism and its Christian expression. Fair
Finally, he offers a particularization. And again he turns to Brian McLaren and
his contention that the evils of our modern age are from absolutism. He offers
a critique of McLaren’s view of modernism, and he scorches this careless point
of McLaren. (You can read it yourself.)
2.0 Emergent analysis of Postmodernity
Now DA Carson turns to the evaluation of “postmodernity”(this chapter needed
some editing up front to make it clear that there was an analysis of modernity
then postmodernity). My outline helps out. Still, the point comes through. He
agrees in the main with the trends: decline in absolutism, increase in
perspectivalism, decrease in confidence in reason and objectivity, and an
increase in affectivity and the like. He finds problems with Emergent analysis.
First, postmodernity is a buzz word. Second, too much of social change is
lumped into one word. DA Carson suggests distinguishing postmodernism from the
“correlatives” of it. Third, postmodernity is becoming passé for in Europe the
term is fading from view. Fourth, there is a suggestion that the “age of
authenticity” has dawned and this smacks of absolutism. (McLaren again.)
And now DA Carson anticipates his next chapter with some words about “isms.”The
alarmist tendencies: if you don’t adapt your church will die. Here’s a quote
that must be considered very seriously:
“Of all the Christian writers who explore postmodernism, none are quite so
modernist – so absolutist – as the emerging church leaders in their defense of
postmodern approaches” (84-85).
For some reason DA Carson does a little sociological guessing himself and
suggests that postmodernity appeals to Christians from intensely conservative
or fundamentalist pasts. (Not all are from such backgrounds, he admits.) I
wasn’t aware he knew all these leaders personally. Does he have sufficient
numbers to be talking about “a very high percentage of them”?
#1: I expected more on the Emergent analysis of culture, and got more on
Emergent’s critique of the evangelical and confessional faith. Why?
#2: What does it mean to say that Emergent theology is “intellectually
incoherent”? Does this mean that it is not “systematic” or “systemic” but is
instead “narrative” or “story” or “encounter in form”?
#3: Is the use of “postmodernity” too much of a buzz word, too easy to use, to
use to use as a “trump card” of victory for the Emergent movement? Has the
Emergent movement used too many simplistic definitions and so distorted the
discussion? Has DA Carson adequately characterized modernity and postmodernity?
#4: Is DA Carson too attached to Brian McLaren’s voice in the Emergent crowd
and missing other voices? Who might these be? And what difference would it make
if he had worked on other Emergent voices?
This is a very serious chapter, and one that needs some careful ears and some
patient thinking. I will not let myself here run into a dialogue with DA Carson
at this point for fear of running into many, many pages.
Tomorrow is the Lord’s Day: let us pray for one another in the spirit of the
communion of the saints.
Sunday, April 17, 2005
In this fourth
part of discussing DA Carson’s new book on the Emergent movement, I will
consider a chapter on “Personal Reflections on PM’s contribution and
He begins with Premodern epistemology (reducing the postmodernity to an
epistemology, which has its own problems, especially when it comes to
explaining the Emergent Movement as a part of that PM). Essentially, God is the
Knower and all human knowing is coming to terms with God’s All-Knowingness and
Knowledge. He adds a few comments on absolutism which, in my mind, are on
target, even if a little tinged with polemical heatedness.
Then he gives six elements of modern epistemology, which are so typical of the
discussion, beginning (as he and gobs of others do) with Descartes. It begins
with “I” instead of God; it was foundationalist and axiomatic in that it
believed we could find axioms on which we could construct large edifices of
truth; it was self-consciously and programmatically methodological; certainty
was objectively attainable; truth was ahistorical (not just located in space
and time) and universal (all, using the same methods, etc., could come to the
same truth); naturalism grew out of this epistemology.
PM’s challenges to modernism are for each of the above six: the “I” is located
in time and space and so different and this leads to pluralism and diversity,
etc; it is suspicious of foundationalism and is at times anti-foundationalist;
there are many methods that can be applied and that will lead to different
“truths”; “objective” knowledge is neither desirable nor attainable; there is
therefore no ahistorical universal truth; philosophical materialism is on the
decline (which is why religious voices are heard more often in the public
square or at universities).
Next, he details correlatives and entailments, which are syncretism, secularization,
biblical illiteracy, ill-defined spirituality, globalization; the entailments
are that objective morality is questioned, evangelism is seen as obnoxious,
feeling is given more appeal, personal narrative is more important than
meta-narrative, and even the hard sciences are under threat.
The strengths of postmodern epistemology: it exposes the weaknesses of
modernism, it is open to non-methodical forms of knowing, it is sensitive to
cultural diversity, and it recognizes the finitude in all human knowing.
Weaknesses are that it tends toward a manipulative set of antitheses (either we
can know certainly or we have only a perspective and he uses “hard” and “soft”
PM here appropriately), it fails to see that a great deal of communication does
take place – and here he has an extensive discussion about Kuhn and
constructionism, it fails to provide an adequate basis for morality and leads
to absurdity, and then he points to the combination of absurdity and arrogance.
For proposals out of this morass of postmodernist crashing into the shoals of
uncertainties, DA Carson points to the fusion of horizons of understanding that
takes place when a person listens to the text/voice of an Other (here I wish DA
Carson would appeal to Alan Jacobs’s brilliant Theology of Reading); the
hermeneutical spiral that leads us closer and closer to the Other’s voice and
word; the asymptotic approach of Karl Popper, or the curved line that gets
closer and closer but never quite touches the line; and then he sketches a few
other approaches to epistemology that are serious challenges to PM.
Somehow the logic of the rest of this chapter escaped me. He begins with “other
approaches” and then we find he is talking now about his “measured responses,”
which begins with some others – like Ricoeur and speech-act theorists; then we
find a second response which is that PM is methodologically atheistic because
it begins with the “I”and it won’t go away until God becomes the starting
point. Amen, DA. I couldn’t agree more that all our knowing is a subset of
God’s knowledge and that we are to find God’s knowledge.
#1: The major question I have is this: What sort of postmodernism is at work
among the various leaders of the Emergent movement? Are they all the same? Do they
differ? And, if so, what differences does it make? One might ask this: Are the
Emergent leaders “guilty” of the “weaknesses” and how? I don’t expect anyone to
sit down and blog out an answer to these questions, but these are the questions
that must be at work: and not just with Brian McLaren. Are the Emergent folks “strong” or “soft”
#2: I am surprised DA Carson does not deal with PM epistemology in terms of
“Subject” and “Object” and that “knowing” is something in the “Subject” and that
it is a “linguistic turn” of granting meaning to something by the Subject. The
entire issue for PM epistemology, so far as I read it [and I’m not an expert on
this], is that “meaning is made by the reader/Subject” and there are meanings
and there are meanings. Has DA Carson been fair to postmodernist epistemology?
#3: Another question to be asked: Has DA Carson resorted to some strong
antitheses to make his points about PM epistemology? I’m not sure he has, but
at times the discussion smacks of over-generalization.
#4: Knowing that the Subject and the Object is critical, we are driven to ask
this question: Is not all knowledge “constructed” by the Subject and therefore
chastened? We must face this question: Granted that we think the Bible is God’s
Word and the Truth, is our “knowledge” of that Word “truth” or is it an
approximation to that Truth? Is not the Subject inevitably entailed in all
#5: Do the Emergent leaders think knowledge begins with “I” or with “God”?
By the way, a nice little introduction to the sorts of varieties among the
Emergent leaders can be found at the following website.
Monday, April 18, 2005
We now turn to chapter 5 of DA
Carson’s book on the Emerging church. Patient listening is required, and that
means patient sorting out of his argument and points, if we are to hear what is
being said. I make no apologize for trotting out his case for the simple reason
that we have to know what he is saying before any kind of reasonable response
can be put forth.
When I am done sorting out his case at the end of the week, I will offer my own
general reflections on this debate in a separate statement, but first we owe
our brother the respect of listening.
In this chapter, DA Carson looks at the Emerging Church critique of PM (=
postmodernism). Once again, DA Carson opens up with observations of the
diversity of the Emergent Church. “It vehemently denounces modernism, but
offers nothing very penetrating when it comes to postmodernism. In particular,
it has wrestled unconvincingly with the related matters of truth, certainty,
historical witness, and even with the nature of the gospel itself” (125). This
leads DA Carson to interact with the Emergent Church’s understanding of truth.
Five problems are seen:
A failure to come to terms with the importance of non-omniscient truth-claims:
Leonard Sweet is used as an example of one who warns that Emergents are not to
embrace PM but then he offers little reasons why not to. Then McLaren’s twelve
suggestions from “The Church on the Other Side,” but DA Carson observes McLaren
fails to address the absurdities of PM. Then Stanley Grenz who asks questions
about objectivity, denies their importance, but doesn’t provide a rationale for
why he can deny their importance.
A failure to face the tough questions, esp. if they are truth-related: DA
Carson addresses this through the issue of evangelism of world religions (and I
think it is very important for this one to be on the table). Stan Grenz’s
“communitarian” apologetic is stated. McLaren’s adadptation of Bosch is brought
out, and again (as for Grenz) the truth-claim issue falls short. “Sadly, I find
just about every step of McLaren’s argumentation at this point either factually
questionable or frankly manipulative” (135).
A failure to use Scripture as the Norming Norm: DA Carson deals with McLaren’s
use of “Tradition” and his appeal to Jon Wilson’s research. Then DA Carson
responds: (1) the Emergent movement likes “Tradition” but does not live in any
one of the Traditions; (2) the Traditions themselves are not equally valid as
they contradict one another at times; (3) both McLaren and Wilson have been
unfair to McIntyre who should not be captured in a PM agenda. John R. Francke’s
appeal to Hans Frei is also criticized: narrative has its place, but only if
behind that narrative there is Truth to make the narrative true.
A failure to handle “becoming” and “belonging” tensions in a biblically
faithful way: belonging precedes becoming for the Emergents. But, (1) the NT
shows the Church to be a distinctive community where “in” and “out” matters;
(2) he counters Burke’s cavalier treatment of the Lord’s Supper passage in 1
Cor 11:29; (3) the NT emphasis on teaching and doctrine needs to be part of the
“personal” emphasis and he has a brief summary of creeds, though why he appeals
to Luke Johnson’s bad book on creeds is beyond me; (4) what is the relationship
between “becoming” and “belonging”? DA Carson suggests that it is a tension, a
healthy one in which both are important. (5) Sectarianism, even though it seems
to be the opposite of the Emergent, is actually one of its characteristics when
it appeals so often to those who don’t catch onto the PM wave will be left
behind (but not with Tim Lahaye!).
A failure to handle facts, both exegetical and historical, in a responsible way:
a very short section, and one that will fascinate many in the Emergent movement
because they will contend that DA Carson has done the same with respect to
them. Give him his point: is it accurate of the Emergent folks? He speaks here,
rather harshly (and he is aware of it being harsh), of a “pattern of
distortion” that is so “persistent that after a while it becomes painful to
read them” (156). Which leads to tomorrow’s chapter on McLaren and Chalke.
#1: If the Emergent Church is so diverse, it would be helpful if DA Carson
sorted out a “taxonomy” of the Emergent Church so we could know which part he
is responding to. It appears to me that DA Carson has responded to only one (of
maybe four or five) aspects of the Emergent Church, and the one he tackles is
the philosophical/theological side. Why not address the whole Emergent Church
in all its varieties?
#2: A second question emerges from the first: why does the Emergent Church find
it so fundamentally important to begin one’s “theology” at the level of praxis
and to move from “mission” to theology? Has DA Carson adequately dealt with
this entire missional focus of the Emergent Church? Does his concern for the
philosophical/epistemological issue obscure this missional emphasis?
#3: A biggie: what role does the Bible play in the Emergent Church? Is
Scripture taken to be the authoritative source for theology and praxis? How is
its view of Scripture articulated?
#4: What does the Emergent Church mean by “truth” or by “truth claims” about
Jesus Christ and the gospel? (and give me my point: whatever you call it, truth
or not, the issue here is to what degree the Emergent Church believes what it
believes is the work of God, etc.)
Monday, April 18, 2005
No one who reads Brian McLaren
or who finds him to be a significant theologian can afford not to read the
seventh chapter of DA Carson’s book. Here’s what I mean: if DA Carson is right,
McLaren’s book is seriously problematic and not just in a pedantic or miniscule
way: if DA Carson is right, McLaren is seriously wrong.
Here’s DA Carson’s essential conclusion: “Every chapter of this book [Generous
Orthodoxy] succumbs to the same elementary analysis. Every chapter has some
useful insights, and every chapter overstates arguments, distorts history,
attaches excessively negative terms to all the things with McLaren disagrees
(even when they have been part of the heritage of confessional Christianity for
two thousand years), and almost never engages the Scriptures except
occasionally in prooftexting ways” (180). My friends, this is no small charge.
DA Carson takes McLaren to task for what he says about the Seven Jesuses we can
know (the views he likes are snippets rather than the substance of that
tradition – and DA Carson is right here, as I am a specialist in these sorts of
things and I thought McLaren was out to lunch here), for what he means by
“evangelical,” for what it means to be “biblical” – and here Carson seriously
trots out problems for McLaren’s views about the atonement, about hell, and
about ethical issues, for what it means to be “protestant,” and for what it
means to be “fundamental.”
Then DA Carson devotes just six pages to Chalke’s “The Lost Message of Jesus”
(which I haven’t read). Similar issues; similar problems. It is not important
(so far as I am concerned) to get into what he has to say about Chalke.
Let me express where DA Carson ends: “I have to say, as kindly but as
forcefully as I can, that to my mind, if words mean anything both McLaren and
Chalke have largely abandoned the gospel” (186).
DA Carson more than once now has said that McLaren is guilty of “the angry
young man syndrome” (though to my knowledge, such a diagnosis is not a part of
DSM IV). What he means, whether a diagnosis or not, is that McLaren is a
reactionary against his (Plymouth Brethren) past and has overreacted into
#1: When DA Carson says on p. 157 that “most emergent leaders regard as their preeminent
thinker and writer” is he accurate? I know of five major leaders: McLaren, Tony
Jones, Andrew Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Dan Kimball. I don’t know if DA Carson
has asked them this, but I suspect Carson is speaking for the leaders here. Too
bad. But, it is the case that McLaren is the one emergent writer who is most
read – unless you start reading the bloggers, and then I suspect Andrew Jones
plays the main game. So, the question becomes one more time: Is McLaren to be
seen as the leading light of the Emergent movement?
#2: Is DA Carson fair to McLaren’s “Generous Orthodoxy”? Let me tip my own hand
so you can see a portion of my own cards here: I read McLaren immediately when
it came out, or when I first saw it, and I can say that he often humored me and
just as often made me think this one thought: McLaren knows more of what he
“does not” believe than what he “does” believe. Which means he is disaffected
and in a stage of reaction. Now that was my read; I could be wrong. And it does
not matter one bit that I had this impression because McLaren could be right
about everything and be a reactionary. I didn’t like his introduction, and his
stance that everyone is against him, and that you might not like the book and
if you don’t toss it away or take it back and get your money back. I don’t find
this sort of thing anything better than churlish and even silly. That may say
something about me, though. Still, I found him engaging and worthy of reading.
I disagreed often.
#3: Now the biggie: if the Emergent movement finds McLaren’s theology its heart
and soul, we are entitled to ask this one simple question: is this theology
orthodoxy? is it biblical? is it evangelical? I am pleading with Emergent
leaders to ask these questions and to ask, along with them, another one: how
does one make knowledge claims about theology? That is, if you say you “know”
something to be theologically true (or whatever word you might want to use),
how do you come to such conclusions? Do you just “think” it and because you
think it find yourself right? Or do you process what you think on the basis of
the Bible and in light of the Great Traditions of the Church? And if you are
“evangelical” (as McLaren says he is) then how do you define an “evangelical”?
Can one take the by-pass around the great reformers and the 17th-18th
theologians (and I’ll put Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley and their like in
the loop) and still claim to be evangelical? Well, these are important
questions, my friend, wherever you find yourself lined up in this debate.
#4: Finally, what is an Emergent Christian? Are there all kinds?
Monday, April 18, 2005
This chapter is easier to
cover because of the nature of the chapter:
Chapter 7 of DA Carson’s book tones down the rhetoric.
DA Carson is a biblical theologian (shaped as he is by the Reformers and esp
the Calvinistic Baptist tradition, and now an Evangelical Free Church leader),
but whatever you want to say about him, he knows his Bible and he wants this
whole Emergent movement to be biblical (more biblical would be the expression).
So, in chapter 7 he trots out the Bible’s statements about “truth.” The reason
he does this is because DA Carson has reduced the debate about the Emergent
movement to an issue of epistemology, he thinks it is wobbling on the issue of
truth, and so he sets out what the Bible means by truth. “One What is True,”
“On Knowing Some Truths, Even with Certainty,” and “On Knowing Enough to Call
Religions Idolatrous”are the topics under which he collects and quotes Bible
verses (pages of them, my friend, pages).
Then he makes comments on ten texts: Rom 1:18—3:20; 3:21—4:25; John 3:1-21;
4:1-42; Gal 1:8-9; Parables of warning; Rev 14:6-20; 1—2 Corinthians; Isa 6;
John 8; 2 Thess 2; John 20:29; 1 Cor 15 (he groups these into ten texts).
He concludes with a quotation from GK Chesterton, and anyone who does that
knows he’s got a clincher.
#1: Is the overwhelming biblical witness to Truth something that is embraced by
the Emergent movement? Has it overreacted?
#2: What is Truth? And how can we know it? And to what degree can we know it?
And what does that mean when it comes to what others think that is contrary to
Truth as we know it?
Monday, April 18, 2005
The final chapter of DA
Carson’s book is a biblical meditation on Truth and Experience, and largely a gentle,
but well-informed, commentary on 2 Peter 1. Here’s his opening line:
“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” (218). For the
traditionalist, there is an emphasis on truth-claims, but with the Emergent
movement there is not. But DA Carson knows there is plenty of appeal to
experience in the Bible – though for some odd reason he fails here to bring in
Jonathan Edwards nearly unsurpassable brilliant book, Religious Affections.
2 Peter 1 works both truth claims and experience together. Let me give you the
big picture. For “experience,” there is a reality of experience being grounded
in God’s power (1:3-4), attested by spiritual growth and productivity (1:5-8),
and attested by our unflagging perseverance (1:9-11). Look the passages up and
read them for yourself.
And on “truth,” he makes these points: our confidence in the truth is
stabilized by constant review (1:12-15), established on historical witness
(1:16-18), and grounded in biblical revelation (1:19-21).
Here’s something I’ve not heard from DA Carson and I’ve talked with on and off
(except when he was off on sabbatical, which was not infrequent) since the
early 1980s: “Damn all false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods,
they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church
into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing
brothers and sisters in Christ” (234).
My only questions will “emerge” in my last installment, which will be my take
on this debate.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
We owe it to one another, and
I feel I am a journalist in all this rather than someone to spar with, to
listen as carefully as we can. Hence, I belabored a point by point summary of
what DA Carson says. I am confident that what I said adequately represents him;
and though I occasionally made some evaluations, by and large I left him alone.
If we are to live as those who love God and love others, then we must at all
costs seek to listen to the Other. And when we do we find that our lives are
opened to the Truth more than if we shut ourselves off. So, we need to listen
to DA Carson, just as he needs to listen to the Emergent folks.
I really care that I am fair both to DA Carson and to the Emergent movement,
and I really care that I’m doing my best to understand both and represent each
as they wish to be. Getting one’s arms around this wondrous new bunch of
Emergents is not an easy task, and so I’m asking for a little slack if I’m not
appreciating how diverse it really is. But here goes…
In other words, I really do care if I have lived according to my book, The
Jesus Creed, and whether I have followed the gentle light of Alan Jacobs in his
Theology of Reading.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
An Appreciation to Andrew Jones,
the Tall Skinny Kiwi who opened the envelope for me
I continue to learn from and support the many efforts of the Emergents because
I think they have recognized the chastened humility that our humble efforts at
theologizing ought to exhibit. They have learned this from the spirit of the
age: namely that the Subject is always involved in the knowing of the Object. I
pray to God they will stay in touch with the Bible and with the Great
Traditions of the Church, and not get carried away by the spirit of the age.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
My own experience shows that I
have learned more about Emergent from blogging and talking and asking Emergents
than I have from reading McLaren, but I have learned plenty from McLaren and
There are other Emergents to deal with: Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones, Andrew
Jones and Dan Kimball. They deserved to be dealt with more adequately if one is
to be “conversant” with the emerging church. I think DA Carson’s book is really
“becoming conversant with the emergent epistemology of Brian McLaren.” I don’t
think I’m being harsh here; the book is all about epistemology and McLaren is
the focus; and the other Emergent leaders and their foci are not in view. This
leaves the book falling short of its title.
And now what I see to be some issues we call need to discuss (and this, my dear
friends, is not about winning and losing but about listening and learning in
order to do the work of the gospel more effectively):
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Issue #1: Emergence is more than
This book falls short of DA Carson’s better books, mostly because it is not
researched thoroughly enough to cover enough of the Emergent movement to catch
what is so blooming attractive about this movement. The debate cannot be
reduced to epistemology, though someone from his angle might like to do so –
and I suspect many of his readers will agree with him because they, too, come
from the same context. I do not dispute that epistemology is crucial; I am only
saying it is not the whole thing. What about the “holism”? and the “communal”
nature of the movement? and especially its “missional” focus? What about how so
many see the “work of God” in huge and embracing terms?
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Issue #1A: Emergence is passionate in
various directions: Why?
And, along this line, we have to ask why it is that so many Evangelicals are
upset with their past – whether or not one agrees with DA Carson that its
leaders come from conservative Evangelical pasts is not the point. If they are,
that is not the issue: the issue is why are they so upset to fashion an
entirely new way of “doing church” (which expression I don’t really like). Why?
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Issue #2: The missional and holism
Fundamentally, the Emergent movement is a “missional” movement and it is
holistic in its mission, and until it is addressed from that point, it won’t be
addressed centrally. I am not aware that hordes are converting to faith in
Jesus Christ by the Emergent movement. I am deeply committed myself to
evangelism, and I am also a student of conversion (see my Turning to Jesus);
and I have an article on small things, like why Evangelicals become Roman
Catholics, and one shortly to be published with JETS on why Jews become
Christians, and I’m doing one why Roman Catholics become Evangelicals. Not long
ago I spoke with a Christian leader who speaks quite often to Emergent churches
and this person told me that the Emergent movement does not have that many
conversions. Now I don’t know if this person was accurate, and it does not
matter, but I still think the issue is missional in the sense that the Emergent
is trying to work out the gospel in a postmodern context – and that context
exists and it is worth letting the gospel have its way in that context. But, I
don’t see enough in DA Carson’s book about this, and for that reason alone the
book is incomplete. It doesn’t undermine what he says about epistemology, but
it makes one wonder why in the world he spent all his time on epistemology when
the movement and its leaders constantly speak of holism and missional and the
like. I wish we’d gotten more about this: maybe a whole chapter on “missional”
and the “holism” of the Bible.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Issue #3: What is Truth and how do we
put it together?
Furthermore, DA Carson’s book fails to deal with what “truth” means. It
regularly tells us that we can know truth, that we find it everywhere in the
Bible, but he doesn’t really define it and expound it at length. I think we
could benefit from that, and I think the Emergent movement would like to see
what he means by Truth to see if they agree, if they don’t, and why and that
sort of thing.
It seems to me that we are dealing with something that is rarely discussed but
is everywhere present. Namely: DA Carson and classical systematic theologians
see the Bible as Revelation; they see it as susceptible to propositional revelation
(and they don’t necessarily thereby deny narrative truth); and they see the
need to do everything we can to exegete Scripture in order to find the
“underlying systemic truth” of the Bible.
Emergents, so far as I can tell, think that this underlying systemic truth is
to be found in something other than a systematic theology. They see it in a
fundamental relationship with God through Christ as revealed in history and the
Scripture and therefore they would see the “unity” of the Scripture in this
personal relationship. Call it a story or a narrative.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Issue #4: The Subject’s grasp of the
Object leads to chastened truth-claims
Also, I don’t think DA Carson deals with the inevitable entailment of
truth-claiming, namely, that even if we think the Scripture is Truth and Jesus
Christ is Truth, we are still in need of dealing with our “articulation” of
that Truth, and that is the place PM enters and that is the struggle we find in
the Emergent Truth. This is a pressing issue for me: I utterly believe in Jesus
Christ and the Bible. But, I don’t believe that what I say about the Bible is
that Truth. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not a strong postmodernist; I do think
we can know the Truth but I don’t think our systems are the Truth. They
approximate that Truth; and I think some of them are so dead-solid we can get
close to Truth (God is; etc).
My own epistemology is this: we are “cracked Eikons” (which is the subject of
my next book, A Weekend called Grace) and the Fall impacts our mind; we are in
need of God’s grace so we can be enlightened; this enlightenment ennobles us
and enables us to “know God” in truth. So, for me, a fundamental feature of a
Christian epistemology involves gracious enlightenment and not simply rational
comprehension. I’m fully persuaded DA Carson agrees with me here, though he
does not really deal with this dimension of a Christian epistemology or a
Christian apprehension or comprehension of Truth. (Augustine and Anselm surely
come into play here.)
I don’t think the way to respond to the PM or to the Emergent movement is to
say, “You folks don’t really believe in truth; I do; and here’s why; and if you
don’t you’ll be far off base.” I think the way to address the issue is more
along the line of defining what the Truth is and seeing wherein we agree and
disagree. In other words, DA Carson could have helped us with a little more on
what truth is on top of the issue “that truth is.”
One of the most elementary features of the Emergent movement is its humility
(or at least its claim to humility: I’m not sure humans ever get this right).
If PM has taught us anything, it has taught us that our “systems” and our
“articulations” and our “interpretations” are not final. What the Emergents
rebel against is the arrogance of the Evangelical and the Truth-claiming
Christian who comes off as arrogant because he or she does not recognize that
we hold this treasure in clay pots: I’m not sure DA Carson helps in this
dimension at all. I’m not accusing DA Carson of arrogance, but I think he has
failed to see the current that drives the boat in this regard. What he has seen
is that Emergents would rather criticize the modernist Christian claim than the
postmodernist non-Christian claim of absolute tolerance. On this they could be
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Issue #5: Over-reactions in the Emergent
The over-reactionary nature of some of its claims, especially about (a) modernism
and postmodernism and (b) what modernist Christianity really believes. The
reason this is a problem is because it resorts to false dichotomies and to
simplistic comparisons. DA Carson’s book will help with this and I do hope that
everyone serious about Emergent church stuff will read him carefully on these
DA Carson’s book explodes this issue and it needs to be given serious
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Issue #6: Self-analysis or even self-deconstruction
Is the Emergent movement largely white? largely post-Evangelical? If so, it
needs to spread its wings and embrace the whole world. This is evidently an
issue for some; DA Carson does not bring this up except in his stuff about it
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Issue #7: A strength with a weakness:
permeable walls abounding
I find the “permeable walls” (they are not strong, solid, or thick) of the Emergent
movement a breath of fresh air. It reminds of Jesus’ table fellowship where
people could be with him, could be near him, could sit down right next to him,
and the gradation was possible because the structures were there that enabled
that to occur. Emergent folks are working out permeable walls. I worry about
too many permeable walls – not only between church and world but between truth
and non-truth, between what is gospel and what is not quite gospel, between
what is just in the Christian sense (I blogged on this one) and what is merely
social justice (and I know this is an important issue and I don’t want to
demean any attempt at justice and that all justice is God’s justice but when
justice is not connected to Christ it is no longer holistic in a Christian
sense). So, the question (it took me long enough) is this: are there too many
permeable walls? Do we need some firmer walls and some permeable walls?
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Issue #8: Particular Realities
One of the most exciting issues is also a potential problem; I have heard many
speak of the “particularism” of the Emergent movement and by that mean that the
gospel will manifest itself differently in each location – and I couldn’t agree
more with Andrew Jones knowing that the Emergent movement in UK will look
different than the one in Southern California or up in Minneapolis where Doug
Pagitt is -- and that the goal is to let the gospel do its work in each setting
and let’s just see what happens. I happen to think this is laudable, but
potentially simplistic: each gospel work will be singular but it will not be
unique since its Spirit is the same, since the gospel is about Jesus Christ,
and … well, there will be some commonalities.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Issue #9: Great Traditions
I like the Emergent focus on the Great Traditions, but robbing and stealing
from them without taking into consideration contexts is no more than ornament.
You can’t have Icons if you don’t have a theology of nature and revelation the
way the Eastern Orthodox do; and you can’t have candles without a view of
prayer that the Catholics do; I could go on and on. So, read the Great
Traditions and learn from them, but simplistic borrowings are not genuine
participations in those Traditions. Please read the great orthodox debates and
you will see what I mean here. The Cappadocian fathers are worth anchoring
oneself deeply into, but a brief visit with a souvenir won’t do.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Issue #10: Cultural usurpation
My big problem ought to be obvious: the problem with Emergent alliance with
postmodernism smacks of theological liberalism where the reigning ideology and
idealisms of the day came to roost in the Church and eventually overwhelmed the
Church and its gospel. There is always a danger of cultural usurpation when one
embraces the reigning ideologies of the day. This should not lead to separation
but to chastened listening and to chastened embracing.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Issue #11: What are we really preaching?
What we preach is Jesus Christ, crucified, raised and the one who sent the
Spirit. We don’t preach the spirit of the age; we preach to the spirit of the
age from within and from without.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Issue #12: Brian, what do you mean by
Generous Orthodoxy, 35: “Beyond all these warnings, you should know that I am
horribly unfair in this book, lacking all scholarly objectivity and
evenhandedness. My own upbringing was way out on the end of one of the most
conservative twigs of one of the most conservative branches of one of the most
conservative limbs of Christianity, and I am far harder on conservative
Protestant Christians who share that heritage than I am on anyone else. I’m
sorry. I am consistently oversympathetic to Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox,
even dreaded liberals, while I keep elbowing my conservative brethren in the
ribs in a most annoying – some would say “ungenerous” – way. I cannot even
pretend to be objective or fair. This is simply an inexcusable shortcoming of
the book that serves no good purpose, unless by some chance it could generously
be included under the proverb, ‘Faithful are the wounds of a friend’ (Proverbs
27:6 NASB). Even so, will I be grateful and gracious when this friendly
wounding is generously reciprocated?”
Is this postmodernist irony? sarcasm? or gamesmanship? None of which stems from
genuine listening or speaking that is the implication of loving the Other with
whom we speak and to whom we write. Please Brian, tell me – what do you really
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