Saturday, February 17, 2007

Gordon R Lewis on Scot McKnight's "Five Streams of the Emerging Church"

Douglas Groothius has posted a letter that Gordon R Lewis, who is Senior Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Denver Seminary, wrote to Christianity Today regarding Scot McKnight's recent CT article Five Streams of the Emerging Church.

Commendably, Lewis underlines the critical importance of propositions. He affirms

Jesus used indicative sentences conveying propositions to teach about God, angels, human souls or spirits, his own deity and mission, signs of the end of the age and a spirituality that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees.
Lewis also speaks of the limits of propositions. He makes the fine statement:
Although systematic theologians claim that divinely revealed assertions are necessary to evangelical spiritual experience, they do not regard them sufficient for every aspect of life. Yes, anyone who comes to God must believe the revealed information that he exists (Heb 11:6). Assent to the truth of that proposition should guide one's holistic commitment to its personal referent, the living Lord of whom it speaks. 'God is spirit does not completely encompass infinity; God's awesome being has many other characteristics.
Here Lewis balances both the necessity of propositions and their limitation (which we've similarly tried to do elsewhere with the term transpropositionality).

Where Lewis regrettably errs in his letter is by implying that McKnight would disagree with such a balanced understanding of propositional truth!

Dr. Lewis accuses McKnight of asserting "no language is capable of capturing absolute truth." However, this is not what Dr. McKnight wrote. Rather, he asserted, "no language is capable of capturing the Absolute Truth who alone is God" (emphasis mine). This is a very different statement in that here McKnight is personalizing "Absolute Truth" and using it to designate the Infinite God. Propositions, of course, point to truth about that God, but they cannot fully "capture" or explicate Him, as the Apostle himself artfully asserts (Romans 11:33). Moreover, Scot positively asserts that the "vast majority" of emerging Christians, of which he counts himself one, "don't deny truth, they don't deny that Jesus Christ is truth, and they don't deny the Bible is truth."

This does not seem to support Lewis claim that McKnight contradicts Jesus statements to His Father of
  • John 17:8 - "I gave them the words you gave me,"
  • John 17:14 - "I have given them your word," and
  • John 17:17 - "your word is truth."
In his article, Scot McKnight does go on to describe a third kind of emerging postmodernity represented by such theologians as LeRon Shults. Thinkers in this minority tributary feeding the emerging church stream, in McKnight's words, "frequently express nervousness about propositional truth."

Lewis' words are best aimed at this type of emerging church conversationalist, but it is unfair and inaccurate for Lewis to assume Scot falls within this camp when he merely reports on its marginal existence.

And it's quite a jump from Scot's comment that "God didn't reveal a systematic theology but a storied narrative" to Lewis' seeming belief that McKnight denies "indicative sentences"and then to Lewis' seeming implication that McKnight is a "logic hater!" We respectfully suggest that such rhetoric contributes more heat than light and doesn't precipitate mutual understanding or helpful critique.

Scot McKnight published an article publicly, so Gordon Lewis is not out of line to publicly critique it. But his criticisms do not suggest a careful reading of McKnight's original piece. As a consequence, his letter does not encourage the mutual learning that would surely occur in a genuine give and take between these two Christian scholars. The truth is too important for us to allow our conversations to be ground down into mere mutual two-dimensionalization.

It's my hope that Scot McKnight and Gordon Lewis will keep the conversation going and that Truth will triumph as a result.

Other thoughts on theological disagreement:


Roger said...

"Lewis' words are best aimed at this type of emerging church conversationalist, but it is unfair and inaccurate for Lewis to assume Scot falls within this camp when he merely reports on its marginal existence."

I had the same reaction. I liked points Dr. Lewis made, but it seemed odd to me that he attributed that position to McKnight.

Stephen said...

thanks Roger! I'm glad I wasn't the only one to observe this.

postmodernegro said...


I read through some of the dialogue surrounding 'propositions'. What some of that disparagers of 'narrative' seem to ignore and refuse to deal with is how 'propositions' are situated within narratives. You can have the proposition God is King but the narrative determines the telos or goal of one's community and life surrounding that proposition. That's why Christians who believed that God exists, Jesus is God incarnate, the bible is the Word of God can still be white supremacists. They can possess the 'right' propositions but have them situated in the wrong narrative and telos. I think that is a major point being brought forward by many in the emerging church.

Alot of the banter about propositions leave me suspect. They seem more concerned about some Lockean notion of 'propositions' and downplaying the role of narrative in directing the telos of propositions.

That's why I find it ironic that alot of these folks tend to situate themselves on a particular cultural and political space.

Stephen said...


I think your comments are helpful here. Surely the two work hand-in-hand. Just last night I was doing a Leadership Training and we spent time 2 Tim 3:14ff where Paul places Timothy's learning of biblical truth squarely in the context of relationship (an even more intense context than narrative) and we were discussing how the two must go together.