(As I have studied the Emergent/Postmodern Movement, another book I sought to have prayerful, objective interaction with was, D.A. Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications. What follows are various reflections I had during this interaction.)
The emergence of the Emergent/Postmodern Movement (EPM) is perhaps the most significant event the ecclesia has witnessed in recent history. It is the opinion of this writer that the the EPM may very well be a precursor to the faithless, spiritually apostate, adulterous church which will emerge into prominent significance as eschatology is ultimately realized. It is therefore of the utmost importance that those within the ecclesia (the Church) be “conversant” with this movement and gain an understanding as to its implications.
As this writer has immersed himself in the study of the EPM, he has discovered that the premise on which the movement is founded is predicated on the fact that the world has evolved from a modern to a postmodern society, and conversely; the church must change with the times. A big part of the way times have changed is the way we understand truth. This writer finds himself in agreement with D.A. Carson as he states in his book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement an Its Implications:
“The fundamental issue in the move from modernism to postmodernism is epistemology– i. e., how we know things, or think we know things. Modernism is often pictured as pursuing truth, absolutism, linear thinking, rationalism, certainty, the cerebral as opposed to the affective- which in turn breeds arrogance, inflexibility, a lust to be right, the desire to control. Postmodernism, by contrast, recognizes how much of what we “know” is shaped by the culture in which we live, is controlled by emotions and aesthetics and heritage, and in fact can only be intelligently held as part of a common tradition, without overbearing claims to being true or right. Modernism tries to find unquestioned foundations on which to build the edifice of knowledge and then proceeds with methodological rigor; postmodernism denies that such foundations exist (it is “antifoundational”) and insists that we come to “know” things in many ways, not a few of them lacking in rigor. Modernism is hard-edged and, in the domain of religion, focuses on truth versus error, right belief, confessionalism; postmodernism is gentle and, in the domain of religion, focuses on relationships, love, shared tradition, integrity in discussion.”
While this writer would agree that postmodernism has definitely replaced the modernistic paradigm which has been prevalent, it is postmodern epistemology that reveals the apostate characteristics which lurk in the heart of the EPM. As Carson points out in his book the danger that presents itself to those involved in the EPM is that of becoming submerged in the surrounding culture to the point of hopeless compromise. EP epistemology is derived from the surrounding culture and its cries for reformation are directly related to its understanding of postmodernism. In other words, the tendency in the EPM is to reject any absolute “truth statements,” and all of theology therefore becomes a subjective narrative in which each individual must find his place. Those within the EPM place a great deal of credence upon tolerance (with the exception of those who disagree with them), hesitating to call anyone wrong. Their preaching and Bible study reflect the importance they place upon the “life-narrative” which conversely emerges from their epistemology.
In his book, Carson applauds those within the EPM for their desire and ability to read the surrounding culture. “Just as the apostle understood that his moves from culture to culture brought implications for how he went about his preaching (even though his constant resolution was to preach Christ crucified, I Corinthians 2:1-5), and just as thoughtful missionaries learn the same lesson as they step from one culture into another, so also must the church of God when it stays home and the culture in which it is embedded changes. That is something the [EPM] understands.”
This writer recognizes, along with Carson, that the EPM does indeed perceive the surrounding culture with far more clarity than many who make up the traditional church, but while the cultural comprehension of the EPM promotes a much needed desire for change and reevaluation; it often appears that the EPM is more in love with the deconstruction of the instituional church than it is with the One who said he would construct his church.
“One of the striking commonalities among its [Emergent] leaders is the high number of them who come from immensely conservative or even fundamental backgrounds. When they describe the kinds of churches from which they spring, a very high percentage of them have emerged from a tradition that is substantially separated from the culture. These churches often lay considerable emphasis on getting certain doctrine, often cast in the fundamentalist mode, nicely constructed and confessed. The passage of time has moved these churches farther and farther from the very different directions being pursued by the broader culture, and sensitive and concerned individuals within such traditions finally make a break, not least for the gospel’s sake. It becomes a mark of freedom to have a glass of wine and watch some movies that our former ecclesiastical friends wouldn’t approve.”
Carson points out that those within the EPM insist that those who are traditionally evangelical are “hard-nosed and inflexible because it constantly thinks in truth-categories and does not perceive the legitimate place of experience- not least the fact that the personal experience of the knower plays a part in what he or she thinks is the truth.” This writer has always considered himself somewhat off the beaten path of what may be labeled traditional western Christianity; however, even one who questions the long held traditions of the modern ecclesia, most assuredly understands that while strict adherence to the historical-grammatical hermeneutical method of biblical interpretation warrants renewed discussion, experience alone cannot be counted upon as the ultimate criteria whereby biblical truths are interpreted. Carson rightly points out that:
“Of course, truth and experience do not have exactly the same sort of footing. Truth itself, rightly understood, may correct experience, but not the other way around. On the other hand, experience may prompt us to revise our previous understanding of the truth. Truth in the Bible is often propositional (though it is often more than that), but mere knowledge of merely propositional truth does not necessarily save us: just ask the Devil himself. Both truth and experience, wrongly functioning in our lives, can be corrupting; our memories of experiences may easily become idolatrous, making it necessary to turn our backs on some of these memories (Philippians 3:13-14), and knowledge may become that which puffs up while love builds up (I Corinthians 8:1).”
Indeed as Carson points out in his commentary on II Peter 1:1-21 our experience must be: grounded in God’s transforming power, attested by spiritual growth and productivity, and attested by our unflagging perseverance.
Carson explains that those in the EPM claim that Christian leaders have to recognize that changes in the culture signify that a new church is emerging, and that there must be a willingness to leave behind forms of thought and modes of expression that no longer communicate to this emerging generation. This writer would agree that Christian leaders must adapt to cultural change as to the modes of communicating the gospel; however, it appears that many within the ranks of the EPM have allowed changes within culture to blind them to the reality that the gospel itself does not change, but creates its own relevance within whatever culture it is preached.
“So which shall we choose? Experience or truth? The left wing of an airplane, or the right? Study or service? Evangelism or discipleship? The front wheels of a car, or the rear? Subjective knowledge or objective knowledge? Faith or obedience? 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. The truth is that Jesus Christ is Lord of all- of the truth and of our experience. The Bible insists that we take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ.”
1. D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications, (Grand Rapids, Michigan- Zondervan, 2005), 27.
5. This is where those within the Emergent movement diverge from Christianity. They have ceased preaching Christ crucified and opted instead for a “gospel” of cultural relevance.
6. D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications, (Grand Rapids, Michigan- Zondervan, 2005), 47.