Thursday, June 29, 2006

are there emerging church shibboleths?

Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle has become something of a flashpoint in the emerging church conversation because he's been so adamant about not being an emerging church revisionist (using Ed Stetzer's term for emergers who wish to modify, or at least discuss modifying, long-held theological beliefs such as substitutionary atonement and the nature of hell). The claim of some that Driscoll isn't "emerging" based on some of his traditionalist theological beliefs has led to a discusson on the faithmaps discussion group as to whether or not there are emerging church shibboleths.

In contrast, emergent's National Coordinator, Tony Jones, in a piece critical of Stetzer's taxonomy and Driscoll's differentiation of "evangelical emergers" from "liberal emergents", has written passionately that emergent welcomes their inerrantists, complimentarians as well as their "Bush-loving neocons."

One thing that the various categorization schemes out there (and I offered one myself a while back) do reveal is that folks have different resonances with the emerging church conversation (here's mine). Some really are just trying to communicate better to postmoderns. Others want to do that and they also want to radically change how church is done. And others really do believe the time has come to tweak the church's theology.

With due respect to Stetzer (for I do find his categories helpful), I think that one of the things that hindered his nomenclature from being more favorably viewed was when he seemed to lump all of the revisionists together and basically dismisses all of their theological speculations with the comment that "their prescriptions fail to take into account the full teaching of the Word of God." Then he writes, "Revisionists are questioning (and in some cases denying) issues like the nature of the substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, the complementarian nature of gender, and the nature of the Gospel itself" as if these matters were of equal importance. He seems to reject any degree of revisionism out of hand.

However, even so Reformed and conservative a leading light as the great exegete John Murray once commented,

"However epochal have been the advances made at certain periods and however great the contributions of particular men we may not suppose that theological construction ever reaches definitive finality. There is the danger of a stagnant traditionalism and we must be alert to this danger, on the one hand, as to that of discarding our historical moorings, on the other."

Murray continues, "When any generation is content to rely upon its theological heritage and refuses to explore for itself the riches of divine revelation, then declension is already under way and heterodoxy will be the lot of the succeeding generation.... A theology that does not build on the past ignores our debt to history and naively overlooks the fact that the present is conditioned by history. A theology that relies on the past evades the demands of the present"(emphasis mine, from his article "Systematic Theology" - see Looking Beyond the Facade of Modernity, Part 2).

Those critiques of Stetzer's comments aside , I'll nevertheless suggest that categorization can be helpful as a discussion tool as long as we don't collapse folks down to their category. They help us to see the different ways in which we are interested in the emerging church conversation.

And perhaps the one legitimate shibboleth for emergers is a dissatisfaction with the status quo.

photo courtesy of kindhelper @ stock.xchng


tony said...

Great post, Stephen. Thanks.


Laura Springer said...

well put. especially the notion of remaining in grounded in history while continuing to do fresh theology.

Joe said...

I luv that pic of the colorful buckets!

Anonymous said...

Ed Stetzer says that revisionists are "...not taking into account the full teaching of the word of God."

If we asked 100 theologians their definition of "full teaching of the word of God" we would get 100 different answers.

That's the problem with most statements of religious absolutes - they remain absolute only in the mind of the giver.

Steve said...

very helpful, thanks. the lumping together of 'revisionsits' as a group tells us a lot more about the person doing the taxonomy than it really sheds light on those being classified! it simply means 'i lump togehter these so i can distance myself from them'. take for instance substitutionary atonment. it is actually quite hard to find any passage of scripture that unequivically refers to this undertsnding of atonement (Isaiah 53 is perhaps closest but even there we do not see the full equation), though it is a possible way of reading some passages it is by no means obviously correct. other understandings of the atonement are far more prevelant in scripture. yet to suggest this is to commit the ultimate heresy in the eyes of people who insisit they are fully biblical. as john righlty points out 'the full teachign of the word of go' is always a mater of opinion. but there is guess is the real divide, between those who recognise that interpretations of scripture or tradtion are limited like this, and those who are convinced they have it all fully understood and must not move from that understanding. and on that, a great John Murray quote, very astute.

Anonymous said...


It seems the quote of John Murray could be used as a way of slowly wiping the slate clean threologically.

That to me is frightening. Of course, his context is absent in that statement so I know little of his own application of thought.

Here is the issue. What is inherrently Christian?

I fear the emergent church in it's desire to do something meaningful is laying aside the most meaningful thing of all.

I do nto care what labels you paste on my lily white tush traditionalist, or ? The same could be said of the prophets that Israel itself killed, but were called by GOD to preach His word.

The bible says that the Gospel is a stumbling block and a ROck of offense. If you erase all that is offensive about the gospel, I guarantee you will erase the gospel too.

Then Christianity is dead.

Anonymous said...

Substitutionary atonement, reality of hell, the complementarian nature of gender, the nature of the Gospel itself... Those ARE all of equal importance. They're all connected. Go ahead and throw in God's omniscience and providence, election, exclusivity of Christ, nature of the trinity, and God's sovereignty. If it doesn't ALL line up, it doesn't work.

If you're off just one bit, it's at least a step toward "another gospel."

Stephen said...

what's the scriptural basis for that comment?