Emergent/Emerging Church – Sept 10

Note: From here on in these blogs on this topic, for simplicity’s sake, I will refer to the Emergent/Emerging movement with E/E. In making this choice, I also want to note that the movement reflects a broad spectrum of approaches to the variety of ecclesiological and theological questions it brings into the church-post-modernism discussion.

Note: From here on in these blogs on this topic, for simplicity’s sake, I will refer to the Emergent/Emerging movement with E/E. In making this choice, I also want to note that the movement reflects a broad spectrum of approaches to the variety of ecclesiological and theological questions it brings into the church-post-modernism discussion. I do not want to pre-position myself by the mere use of terminology as that often means we are sloganeering and not thinking hard about the issues that need careful attention. I want to set a context and tone for this discussion before I start. My contacts with folks in this movement go back several years with conferences Christianity Today sponsored in Chicago and Houston. The Seminary also held a Conference at our Center for Christian Leadership on Post-Modernism and the Church at which Brian McLaren was a guest. One of the hour long sessions involved he and I alone taking questions and my interacting with his presentation in a type of dialogue format. He had read some material I had prepared (The first chapter on epistemology, the Bible and foundationalism, in my PURPOSE DIRECTED THEOLOGY [IVP]) as I had read some of his materials as well (A New Kind of Christian). In addition, I have worked with a Thomas Nelson project in which a fresh paraphrastic engagement with Scripture is the goal. As it worked out, I was assigned Luke-Acts, for obvious reasons, given my own expertise and was paired with Brian again as he was assigned those books and I was to give him feedback. We both regard this as having been a good experience for us. I note all of this to say that my contact with these concerns is not theoretical or abstract, nor is it merely second hand or without direct involvement in personal discussion. Now I share with you what disturbs me about the discussion as I have often confronted it. As I have traveled the country about the DaVinci Code, I have often been asked about E/E as if there were a natural connection between the issues I discussed there about university efforts to undermine Jesus and the questions E/E asks. This befuddled me for the longest time, since in my mind these were two completely unrelated questions and topics. One of the times a question was raised was during a media interview I was doing about the extra-biblical gospels. More than the questions is a tone that almost always was tied to its being raised. People were angry about the E/E movement and treated it as if nothing good could possibly come out of it. This also befuddled me as in the meetings I attended and discussions I had, all I saw was a sincere wrestling with crucial questions by members of the movement (Not that I always liked the answers or hesitated to challenge the responses at points in those meetings). Why the anger? Well recently, the connection dawned on me. Those who were angry sensed what they perceived as a dangerous revisionism in the E/E movement, a revisionism not unlike the revisionism I was discussing in some of the topics I was treating. What I want to say right off is that I do not sense that is what is happening in much of the E/E movement as a whole. Let me explain and make a distinction that will be important for us. Much of the movement is driven by a desire to do a “rethink” or “reimage.” That in itself is not a problem and on many issues such work is necessary, potentially doing the church a great service. Where that “rethinking” touches issues of church form and structure tied sensitively to culture, that is a perfectly appropriate question to ask and work through. In this area, tied as it also is to concerns about incarnating the gospel and being missional about it, such questions must be asked and pursued. However, there is a certain segment of this movement that is less well connected to the ancient roots it sometimes espouses when it comes to issues of authority (Biblical), leadership (Pastoral), and some aspects of theological articulation (esp the atonement–or at least death for sin– and the uniqueness and necessity of Jesus for the plan of God in salvation). Now if this reply sounds a bit “schizophrenic” about the movement, that is because that is exactly what my reaction to it is. I find what this means is that I must listen carefully to each E/E speaker rather than generalizing about the movement as if it were a monolith. It also means that the engagement with it becomes complex, depending on what topic and angle is being taken by a given speaker or writer. So you will get no blanket generalizations from me in this series. I also advise that this is the best way to engage this movement and the discussion. That standard I hope to maintain as I pursue these blog entries.


  • Tony Jones

    Dr. Bock:

    I just want to jump in at the beginning of this series of posts to commend you for the evenhandedness with which you are approaching the subject. What you’ve found in Brian, you’d also find in many of the rest of us in emergentland: there is no malicious intent to undermine truth or gospel or church. There is merely a desire to robustly investigate many of the tenets of Christian life that have been unquestioned for decades. Some may call this revisionism, but I call it theological reflection. Revisionism may be a sin, but so is traditionalism (that is, protecting traditions qua traditions).

    Grace and Peace,

    Tony Jones
    National Coordinator, Emergent Village

  • Ben

    Looking forward to hearing
    Looking forward to hearing the continuing discussion on the E/E movement very much, Dr Bock. Perhaps in your next lengthy post you might consider breaking up some of the paragraphs with whitespace… my eyes were starting to wear out as I read this one! 🙂


  • Ron Short

    Thanks for your attempt to
    Thanks for your attempt to be fair by avoiding generalizations. I look forward to your comments on a movement that I have found refreshing.

  • Steve Cornell

    More thoughts on Emergent
    The Emergent Church
    -A new wave of evangelical identity-
    by Steve Cornell

    The Emergent Church is a rapidly growing network of individual believers and Churches who would prefer to be understood as a conversation or a friendship rather than an organization. Yet due to overwhelming interest, those who have joined the conversation have found it necessary to organize and designate leaders on the national and international levels. Other titles associated with Emergent include: post-evangelical, post-conservative, post-fundamentalists, post-foundationalists, post-propositionalist, and younger evangelicals. is a primary web site for emergent.

    Emergent Church leaders

    The late Stanley Grenz has been recognized as the professor of post-conservatism. Roger Olson and Robert Webber have been branded the publicists of post-conservatism. Tony Jones is the U.S. National Coordinator for Emergent and Brian McLaren is arguably the most popular name associated with the work of emergent. Other names include: Leonard Sweet, Erwin McManus, Spencer Burke, Edmund Burke, John Franke, Rob Bell, the late Mike Yaconelli, Chris Seay, Carol Childress, and Dave Travis.

    Critical assessment of Emergent

    Before offering critical assessment of Emergent, it is wise to remember that such analysis should never be approached lightly. We are all one body. “We have the same Spirit, and we have all been called to the same glorious future. There is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and there is only one God and Father, who is over us all and in us all and living through us all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
    Yet our spiritual unity does not preclude our responsibility to critique new movements within the body of Christ. New waves of teaching and identity must be evaluated by the faith that was- once for all — delivered to God’s people. The New Testament warns about the danger of being easily enamored with novel ideas. When believers are not firmly grounded in biblical truth, they vacillate like susceptible children who constantly change their minds about what they believe because someone has told them something different.

    Emerging in reaction

    Emergent, like most new expressions within the Church, is partly a reaction to existing identities in the body of Christ. Some of the most influential leaders in Emergent have emerged from conservative and fundamentalist approaches to Christianity. It is apparent from their writings that these leaders feel betrayed by their upbringing. They reject the simplistic, biased and judgmental way they were taught to look at people in the world –many of whom seem more pleasant, humble and nice than the people from their fundamentalist Churches. Reacting to this background, they are determined to transcend the separatist spirit of Christians who seem to have nothing more important to do than to defend how right they are and how wrong everyone else is. With a chastened spirit of repentance, they reach out with open arms of tolerance and acceptance to those they were warned to separate from.

    The Emergent offer

    Emergent offers what they believe to be a more generous orthodoxy. Commendably, they believe the Church should be a welcoming and authentic community of creativity and learning—a place where people with different views are treated with the utmost respect and dignity (rather than being looked down on). They offer an eclectic use of traditions in worship—candle lighting, prayer stations, liturgy, symbols, meditation, sermons, songs and conversations. They desire to move beyond a creed-based identity to a spirituality-based identity. They recommend embracing and celebrating the mystery of the world, life and God rather than conquering it. They prefer theology as a quest for the beauty and truth of God rather than a search for propositional statements, proof texts and doctrinal formulations —-used to measure those who are in and judge those who are out. Committed to what they call a missional focus, they see the world as something to reach out to not something to hide from and arrogantly renounce.

    The Emergent overreaction

    Those who share a common conservative background (especially younger leaders) will be drawn to the concerns raised by Emergent. Conservative and fundamental Church leaders have been guilty of reactionary extremes. Yet, as is almost always the case, reactions to reactions swing the proverbial pendulum to opposite extremes. Sadly, in the case of emergent, the desire to be perceived as accepting and non-condemning is being taken too far. In their effort to avoid being misunderstood by nonbelievers, they soft-pedal around the exclusivity of salvation through Christ alone. They are evasive on teaching about eternal punishment. They blur Scriptural condemnation of homosexual behavior. In the end, one is left to question the extent to which they embrace Scripture as the authoritative, univocal divine revelation for humanity.

    Emergent’s limited generosity

    The welcoming spirit of emergent is commendable but it is generously extended to everyone except conservative Christians. The best example of this is found in Brian McLaren’s, “A Generous Orthodoxy.” Mimicking the spirit of the culture, McLaren offers everyone (except conservative Christians) large doses of tolerance. Parroting the academic community, those considered liberal or on the left receive the most generosity from McLaren. This is significant because emergent is built on the assumption that evangelicals (of both the conservative and pragmatic stripe) have made far too many concessions to modern culture. It is often the case that the things we condemn in others we are guilty of in other areas. Evidently, McLaren doesn’t recognize how cynical, sarcastic, and condescending he sounds toward those he deems old fashion, non-emergent Christian modernists.

    The Emergent overstatement

    Emergent leaders emphasize a need for radical reform in the Church based on an understanding of postmodern culture. They operate on “the assumption that postmodernism has effected such a gigantic and irreversible shift in people’s thought patterns that the Church is faced with a fundamental choice: adapt so as to respond better to postmodernism, or be relegated to irrelevance” (D.A. Carson, “Becoming Conversant with Emergent”).
    In this area of emphasis, emergent leaders should be cautioned against the kind of overstatement they deplore in other twigs of evangelical identity. First, the nature of the shift from modern to postmodern is highly debatable. Is post-modern actually most-modern? Perhaps we should really be talking about a trans-modernism culture.
    Secondly, while it is true that some spiritual leaders do not adequately understand the cultural changes that have occurred over the last several decades, many others have faithfully and effectively addressed those changes before Emergent ever emerged. I fear that Emergent, in an effort to emphasize the urgency of their mission, has inadvertently disrespected the outstanding work of many other leaders in this area of concern.

    Emergent and postmodernity

    A more troubling possibility is that Emergent leaders are not really interested in thoughtful biblical critique of postmodernity. Is it the Emergent enterprise to seek a better understanding of the shift to postmodernity and address it as a communicational challenge for the gospel? Or, have the Emergent leaders embraced the values of postmodernity because they actually consider them superior?
    The most important value of postmodernity is the inadmissibility of all totalizing ways of viewing any dimension of life. Postmodernity, as a theory, refuses to allow any single defining source for truth and reality beyond the individual. The gospel clearly contradicts this value. While Emergent leaders raise legitimate concerns about adding too much to the gospel, they also must be careful not to reshape the gospel to accommodate this primary value of postmodernity. If the gospel is held hostage to the restrictions of postmodernity, it ceases to be good news.

    Steven W. Cornell, senior pastor Millersville Bible Church 58 West Frederick St. Millersville PA. 17551 717-872-4260
    717-989-5410 cell
    [email protected]

  • Steve Cornell

    More thoughts on postmodernity
    A strange postmodern world
    by Steve Cornell

    Effective ministry requires cultural awareness. We must understand the cultural contexts of our ministries. We need to understand the underlying ways people think and especially the way people view truth and reality. Missionaries sent to foreign cultures have consistently recognized this need. Yet for many years those who remained in western cultures did not place as much emphasis on cultural awareness. They assumed they understood their culture. But times have changed. Fairly recent and significant shifts in the way people view truth and reality have required greater cultural understanding. Many have identified the shift as movement from a modern to a postmodern culture. But is this shift as significant as some suggest? And, if it is, what is at the heart of it?

    In his book, The Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an age of Diminished Christianity, R. R. Reno wisely recommended, “If we care about evangelism, then surely we need to get our bearings in this strange postmodern world. If we wish to preach and teach effectively, than we must be clear about where the sharp and double-edged sword of the gospel cuts into the spirit of the age. This is especially important because our churches are awash with disorienting analysis. Some are eager to convince us that our sophisticated scientific culture just cannot accept the simplistic mythological worldview of traditional Christianity. Others are certain that the new global communication makes us so aware of cultural and religious diversity that the traditional exclusivist claims of Christianity are untenable. Still others drink deeply at the well of literary theory and in an intoxicated reverie announce that old ideas of meaning and truth have been transcended. …Most however, offer a straight forward assessment: our postmodern world is so very, very, complex that the traditional forms of Christian preaching and teaching must be updated and revised” (From: Mars Hill Audio Resource, “Postmodern Irony and Petronian Humanism,”, p.1).

    Admittedly, there is widespread misunderstanding and disagreement about the label ‘postmodern’. In his article, The Dangers & Delights of Postmodernism, D. A. Carson wrote, “The meaning of postmodernism is not transparent. Moreover, its range of application (it has been applied to literature, art, communication theory, architecture, epistemology, jurisprudence, the philosophy of science, and more) means that its associations for one person may be very different from its associations for someone else. (From: Modern Reformation Magazine, 2003, July / August Issue, Vol. 12.4).

    In his book, The Way of the (modern) world Or, why It’s tempting to Live as if God doesn’t Exist, Craig M. Gay, observed that, “There is very little agreement as yet as to what ‘postmodernity’ means. While the term occasionally simply denotes dissatisfaction with modernity, it is increasingly used to suggest that we have entered into an entirely new cultural situation in which none of the old ‘modern’ rules and habits of mind need be taken seriously anymore. All such suggestions are mistaken and misleading. …the ideals of the modern project are still very firmly embedded in the central institutional realities of contemporary society. Although modernity may well be passé in certain intellectual circles, typically modern ideas and assumptions are still quite effectively communicated within contemporary culture by many of the institutional realities that surround us and by many of the ways we do things today. …postmodernity represents only a kind of extension of modernity, a kind of ‘hyper-modernity’” (pp.17-18).

    Along similar lines, British sociologist Anthony Giddens suggested that, “rather than entering a period of post-modernity, we are moving into one in which the consequences of modernity are becoming more radicalized and universalized than before” (The Consequences of Modernity, p. 3). Accordingly, it could be said that we are living in most-modern times instead of post-modern.
    Whatever label one chooses, western culture in particular has experienced some significant changes that effect gospel ministry. For the purpose of this article, these changes will be explored in relation to modernity.

    Understanding the shift:
    pre-modern to modern to post-modern

    1. Pre-modern: Religion is the source of truth and reality (God’s existence, attributes and revelation were givens in the culture)
    2. Modern: Science is the source for truth and reality (religion and morality are moved to the subjective realm)
    3. Postmodern: There is no single defining source for truth and reality beyond the individual—not even science or history.

    Modernism brought relativism and individualism into the realm of religion and morality. Science (and to a degree, history) remained bastions of objectivity.
    Postmodernism radicalized relativism and individualism and applied it to all spheres of knowing—even science. In relation to this shift, a mood change has settled into western culture.

    A mood change: from optimism to pessimism

    Postmodernity has brought with it a shift from human optimism (based on scientific certainty and technological progress), to a pessimistic mood of skepticism, uncertainty and even angst. The people who fill our Churches have been affected by this shift—especially the young people. The postmodern mood is basically one of disbelief.

    Contrasting modern and postmodern

    The following contrasts between modern and postmodern offer another way to consider the mood change.
    Modernity was confident.
    Postmodernity is anxious.
    Modernity had all the answers.
    Postmodernity is full of questions.
    Modernity reveled in reason, science and human ability.
    Postmodernity wallows (with apparent contentment or nihilistic angst) in mysticism, relativism, and the incapacity to know anything with certainty.
    (Graham Johnston, “Preaching to a Postmodern World” Baker,2001)

    Postmoderns on truth and reality

    Postmodernity rejects individual autonomy, universal reason and absolute truth. Truth (under postmodernity) is completely perspectival and situational. History, social class, gender, culture, and religion all control the way we understand truth and reality. They shape the narratives and meanings of our lives as culturally embedded, localized social constructions without any universal application. Claims of universal meaning are viewed as efforts to marginalize and oppress the rights of others.

    The most important value of postmodernity is the inadmissibility of all totalizing ways of viewing any dimension of life. Postmodernity, as a theory, refuses to allow any single defining source for truth and reality.
    Kevin Vanhoozer illustrates the way postmoderns understand reality: “We do not simply look at a rose and evaluate its intrinsic beauty, fragrance and design, we consider ourselves as we look at the rose. The temptation is to think that the color of the rose is a product of our optical nerve, and its scent of our noses, so that in the end there is no rose left.” (emphasis mine) (pp. 75-76, Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: six views, ed., Myron B. Penner).

    Challenge to gospel ministry

    Applying this shift to gospel ministry, D. A. Carson wrote, “Initially, the removal of transcendent truth or values led to a restlessness that was seized for the gospel. Now, the restlessness is moving toward a carefree attitude. Postmoderns seem to have a striking capacity to endure groundlessness and incoherence calmly –to live as ironists with equanimity.” (From: Telling the Truth, ed., D. A. Carson, p. 86).

    Kevin Vanhoozer believes that many of the people we desire to reach with the gospel “reject unifying, totalizing, and universal schemes in favor of a new emphasis on difference, plurality, fragmentation and complexity. Postmoderns are suspicious of truth claims, of ‘getting it right.’” (The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology).

    The ethic of pluralistic civility is the social expectation. Tolerance is required of all. Lessons on good arguments and detecting error are unnecessary. Those who promote such things are suspected of imperialistic motives aimed at oppressing the weak and less fortunate.
    R. R. Reno, perceptively observed the spirit of this age when he wrote, “Anxieties about the closed circuit of dogma, the exhausting weight of tradition, and the crushing force of institutional authority lead our postmodern culture to the extreme of denying the authority of truth itself.” (Ibid. p. 5)

    Elements of absurdity in postmodernity

    Although people entrenched in a postmodern outlook profess to care little about consistency, it is wise to expose the significant logical inconsistencies in postmodern theory. Consider the following:

    Postmodernity is the worldview that says no worldview exists.
    Postmodernity is an anti-theory that uses theoretical tools to neutralize all theories.
    Postmodernity demands an imposed uniformity in an effort to resist uniformity.
    Postmoderns often use propositional statements to negate truth based on propositional statements.

    Discovering and exposing these kinds of logical contradiction often invites the postmodern smirk that says—“poor soul, you are so bound by modernity.” It is perhaps best to express these concerns as sincere questions. Our goal in evangelism is never to win an argument. It is always to lead a person to truth and freedom.
    Effective ministry requires us to see through and gently expose the smokescreens people use to avoid truth. Many years ago, Blaise Pascal described what we observe in people today, “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” The gospel, however, calls us to think about these things and to turn from death to life.

    Postmodernity: A benefit and a danger

    “The introduction of postmodernity has proved of some benefit to Christian faith. The Enlightenment sought to relegate matters of faith to the rear of the bus as either insignificant or nonexistent. Postmodernity returns value to faith and affirms the nurturing of our spiritual being as vital to humankind. Unfortunately, with the loss of truth, people will now seek faith without boundaries, categories, or definition. The old parameters of belief do not exist. As a result, people will be increasingly open to knowing God, but on their own terms.” (Preaching to a Postmodern World,” Graham Johnston, p.31).
    “The willing conformity that characterizes so much postmodern life can give the evangelist hope that the prideful self-sufficiency of modernity has finally exhausted itself. These are, however, deceptions made possible by a fixation on pride as the primary barrier to faith. Sloth and cowardice in reality are just as deadly. Both slink away from the urgency of conviction. Both fear the sharp edge of demand and expectation. Both have a vested interest in cynicism, irony and outward conformity. These vices, not pride, now dominate our culture.” (R. R. Reno, Ibid, p. 8).


    Understanding the shift to postmodernity will become increasingly important for those called to minister in Western culture. In changing times, we must be willing to make changes in the way we do evangelism and ministry. But we must never make concessions to postmodernity that compromise the integrity of the gospel or diminish Scripture as the authoritative, univocal divine revelation for humanity. Any moderation of the demands of the gospel to accommodate the postmodern spirit will drain it of the power of God unto salvation. If the gospel is held hostage to the restrictions of postmodernity, it ceases to be the good news that humans so desperately need.

    Eight truths for postmodern times

    1. We are all sinners who receive the penalty of death (Romans 3:10, 23; 5:12)
    2. God has demonstrated His love for all (John 3:16;Romans 5:8).
    3. God desires salvation for all (I Timothy 2:3-4;II Peter 3:9).
    4. God has made provision for salvation (I Timothy 2:5-6;4:9-10; Titus 2:11; I John 2:2).
    5. God commands all people to repent (Acts 17:30).
    6. God will hold all accountable for their response to His provision (Romans 2:4-11;14:11;Acts 17:31).
    7. God takes no pleasure in the rejection of His provision (Ezekiel 18:23,32).
    8. God will save all who place faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (John 3:16;11:26; Romans 10:13).

    Steven W. Cornell
    Senior pastor
    Millersville Bible Church
    Millersville, Pa 17551

  • Dave Marriott

    The logical end of PD in bed with emergent?
    Dr. Bock,

    I don’t know if anybody is still reading this thread:)

    A quick question though: could it be that you are so gracious with E/E as you call it, because you have a particular interest in how they “incarnate the gospel?” If I am correct, the last chapter of your book on Progressive Dispensationalism was quite involved in discussion of advancing the kingdom now. The kingdom now motif is quite prevalent among Bell, McClaren and others in the emergent conversation. As I read your smaller, NIV Commentary on Luke, this was a concern to me.

  • bock

    Logical End dlb

    Your reading of the connection is wrong. PD has next to nothing to do with this emergent discussion. Incarnating the gospel, as you put it, is not an Emergent theme. It is part of Jesus’ own teaching that we are called to obey. Matthew 5:14-16 with 28:18-20. Paul’s imitate me as I imitate Christ is the same thing. I do not think Paul knew about the emergent movement. He came long before it. One of the key features of Jesus’ teaching is how eschatology and ethics are related. That is part of the goal of the Holy Spirit being given to us, so we can obey the call of God. That also is Pauline (Romans 8). Sometimes in some dispensationalists’ reaction to the kingdom already, they risk missing the direct teaching of Jesus to the church to whom the gospels were written to present Jesus’ teaching to them. This is precisely why PD has the emphases it does. Those emphases are affirmed by Jesus and Paul, showing their transdispensational character. The whole point for Jesus’ death was to inaugurate the New Covenant promise of forgiveness and the law in the heart (see the Last supper remarks of Jesus; Luke 22:20), which is simply another way to talk about the Spirit within (See 2 Cor 3). Nothing particularly emergent here, just texts from the Scripture. I hope this answers your query.