The Nexus of Emerging Church and the Traditions of Calvinism
One of the most interesting phenomena within the emerging church movement has been the participation of individuals from the Calvinist traditions (this has occurred in roughly the same time as a similarly interesting confluence of Calvinist and Charismatic traditions seen in such groups as the Sovereign Grace Ministries). One of the the most well-known churches in the Calvinist/Emerging Church space has been Mars Hill Church in Seattle which is pastored by Mark Driscoll. Mark is also associated with the Acts 29 Network (which, according to Driscoll, has started over 100 churches in the last 5 years). Another significant collection of sites in this space has been those maintained by Rob Schlapfer including:
Discerning Reader (a bookstore) and
Antithesis, (though this site is now shut down with a single provocative quote by Rob: "antithesis is shut down - perhaps for good. I've just lost hope.")
Mars Hill Church's Mark Driscoll has recently written a book called Radical Reformission. The latest issue of Christian Counterculture has a Driscoll article based on the book. The article includes a fascinating early look at the beginning of Leadership Network's Young Leaders Network which can be considered the institutional predecessor of Emergent in the Emerging Church space.
Rob Schlapfer recently posted an interesting editorial piece on the Christian Counterculture site called Christians Before a Watching World: The Dangerous Pursuit of Reformed Theology.
He begins his piece with :
Why is it that, with all too many of us, the more familiar we are with sound Christian teaching the less Christ-like we become in our daily lives? Why are so many "Reformed" believers in particular, so lacking in love, kindness, patience, gentelness, meekness -- the fruti fo the Spirit's work with us? Why so cold -- abstrating truth from the real world of people with needs? Is there a danger pursuing theology -- especially, in our times, Reformed Theology?
Yes. There is a very real danger.
Schlapfer concludes his brief piece with
Don't misunderstand me. I am grateful that I was introduced to the riches of Reformed Theology some twenty years ago. But the study of such theology is not an end in and of itself. It is always to make us mroe like Jesus....
I suggest that Schlapfer hits some helpful notes that speak to how the Emerging Church and the Calvinist traditions can be helpfully synergistic.
One of the critiques some emergers have about evangelicalism is that it's addicted to the proposition - that it views information transfer as what we've called elsewhere the omnicompetent modality of spiritual transformation. Many of us in the emerging church conversation believe that a more holistic approach to spiritual change is necessary - one that does not exalts information transfer as the exclusive means of spiritual change. This is an emerging church thoughtthread that serves the Calvinist tradition and Schlapfer's concerns.
With such an emphasis, however, it might be understandable if the church emergent were to swing too far into the opposite direction. One might see the emerging church depreciating biblical information in the process of overreacting to a perceived imbalance. This is a common phenomenon in philosophical thought. In his Philosophy and the Christian Faith, Colin Brown, who at that time was Dean of Studies at Trinity College in Bristol, England, noted:
At almost regular intervals down the centuries someone will hit upon an idea which has some claim to truth. It is then blown up into a system which is thought to be capable of explaining everything. It is hailed as a key to unlock every door….In each case the thinkers concerned were so impressed with their particular insight that they built it into a more or less rigid system which virtually destroyed its original usefulness.…if anything is to be learnt form the history of philosophy, we should be cautious in embracing one set of philosophical ideas to the exclusion of all others, and critical in our evaluation of all of them. Just as no single human being has exhaustive knowledge of the whole of reality, but may have partial and valid insights into this or that field of experience, so no philosophy is all embracing. Its insights and methods are often tentative and provisional. It may have a valid apprehension of this or that. Its methods may be fruitful in exploring certain particular fields. But if we are wise, we shall be on our guard against definitive systems and allegedly omnipotent methods of approach.
Those of us in the emerging church do well not to quickly cast aside the theological spadework of those who've preceeded us, including the many sincere and brilliant theologians of the Calvinist traditions. While eschewing proposition addiction, we musn't overreact by avoiding the necessary proposition. Balance is the watchword.
Another way in which the Calvinist tradition might profit from the emerging church ethos is from the emphasis of some in the emerging church on the core essentials of the Christian faith while exercising tolerance in regards to non-essentials. This, of course, is an ancient sentiment - going back to Augustine:
"In essentials, unity;
in non-essentials, liberty;
in all things, love."
Such an emphasis is not without precedent in the Calvinist traditions.
“No, he will be so near the throne, and we at such a distance, that we shall hardly get a glimpse of him.”
More recently, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a denomination of about 190 churches that began in 1980, sees just such a sentiment as one of its core distinctives. On their official website, in answer to he question "What is unique about the EPC?" the denomination answers:
We are unique among American Presbyterians with our self-conscious attempt to balance essential and non-essential matters within a confessional heritage. We are unified in our commitment to the essentials of the historic Christian faith taught in the Bible, but allow liberty of conscience on those matters which are not so plain in or central to the Bible’s teaching.
And Warehouse242, an emerging church in the Charlotte area, is part of the EPC.
It will be interesting to see how these traditions interplay in days to come.
It would be a beautiful thing if the emerging church conversation becomes not a cause for division in broader evangelicalism, but rather a conversation that seasons the entire movement. We believe such a consequence is possible.