In chapter 5 of Why we’re not emergent (by two guys who should be) Kevin DeYoung discusses the emergent attitude towards doctrine. Quoting Doug Pagitt, DeYoung notes,
Instead of saying, “Here is truth; take it or leave it,” the emergent crowd calls Christians to declare, “Come and experience the story of God in the life of this community.”
And a member of Pagitt’s church, Solomon’s Porch, speaks for many when she says, ‘I feel like dogma never works, like people are hungry to see a better life.’
We should not suppose that all emergent people have thrown doctrine out of the window; but there is an alarming tendency to minimise its importance. They want to emphasise the priority of orthopraxy (right behaviour) over orthodoxy (right doctrine). They should not suppose, however, that this is all new and post-modern: a century ago, Protestant liberalism was saying the same thing. Harnack, for example, said, ‘True faith in Jesus is not a matter of creedal orthodoxy but of doing as he did.’
And the tired old adage was trotted out: ‘Doctrine divides, service unites.’
But the liberal/emergent disparagement of doctrine is neither true nor helpful.
John said that he had written his Gospel, not that people might follow Jesus’ way of life, but they might believe that he was the Christ and by believing have life in his name (John 20:31).
And John wrote elsewhere that any spirit that does not confess the Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not from God but is the spirit of the antichrist (1 John 4:2-3).
And again, John wrote that whoever does not believe that Jesus was God’s own Son is condemned already, John 3:18.
In fact, eternal condemnation awaits those who preach the wrong gospel (Galatians 1:8). Part of the job of the elder is to firmly hod to the trustworthy message that has been taught, so that he can encourage and refute others (Titus 1:9). Houseroom was not to be given to those who bring false teaching (2 John 9-10).
Beside being untrue,
orthodoxy as orthopraxy is monumentally unhelpful. It sounds wonderful at first. Jesus is the best way to live. Where’s the harm in that? After all, it is true that Jesus taught good ethics and set a good moral example. But if orthodoxy means I live the right way, the way of Jesus, I have no hope. Where do I turn after I’ve screwed up the beatitudes for the fiftieth time? Where do I find peace when I realise I fail the Sermon on the Mount daily? What do I tell the Devil when he reminds me that I don’t do justly and love mrecy and walk humbly with my God (see Mic 6:8) as I should?…If the good news is an invitation to a Jesus way of life and not information about somebody who accomplsihed something on my behalf, I’m sunk. This is law and no gospel.
What J.G. Machen wrote of old-fashioned liberalism would seem to be painfully true of emergent:-
Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity – liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.
Could it just be that many who experience the shifting sands of postmodernity are actually becoming rather tired of ‘indecision and inconsistency reheated and served to us as paradox and mystery.’ Instead, they long to know and experience ‘truth unchanged, unchanging’.
If the emerging church struggles to find a theological centre, it struggles even more with theological boundaries. In the words of Tony Jones,
the very nature of theology is one of conversation and dialogue, not one of setting boundaries and safeguards from elusive historic orthodoxy…I don’t want to spend [my time] guarding borders, I’d like to spend it inviting people into the kingdom.
Accordingly, Jones has no time for statements of faith. They are, he says, ‘a modernistic endeavor that I’m not the least bit interested in.’
With no discernable theological centre, and with no interest in defining boundaries the emerging church is in serious danger of losing touch with anything that is specifically Christian, let alone evangelical. At least, this is the case if Burke and Taylor’s A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity is anything to go by. Burke affirms a quasi-universalism in which he entertains the notion that ‘grace is something to be opted out of rather than opted in to? [Grace] is not something you get but something you already have…The God I connect with does not assign humans to hell.’ In definance of Scripture, Burke rejects the cross of Christ as an atoning sacrifice, preferring instead the old liberal notion of Jesus as a great moral example:-
Although the link between grace and sin has driven Christianity for centuries, it just doesn’t resonate in our culture anymore. It repulses rather than attracts. People are becoming much less inclinced to acknowledge themselves as “sinners in need of a Saviour.”
For Burke, a better approach is to see Jesus as ‘the model of sinless living, the ultimate example to which all humanity should aspire.’ What you actually believe about Jesus is irrelevant. Jesus’ vision of God is ‘for anyone and everyone – Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, whatever…What counts is not a belief system but a holistic approach of following what you feel, experience, discover, and believe; it is a willingness to join Jesus in his vision for a transformed humanity.’
Burke confesses that he now takes a pantheistic view of God. The Christian life is no longer, for him, tied in with the life, death, resurrection, ascension, exaltation, and return of Christ:-
The challenge of the spiritual life is to live fully connected here and now. A commitment to mystical responsibility is a commitment to an evolutionary journey toward personal, social, and communal transformation, where we pay attention to life, listen to its messages, and discover its opportunities.
That statement could have come from almost any self-help guru. It scarcely represents the Christianity of the Bible.
Turning now to Peter Rollins’ book How (Not) to Talk of God, we find a radical scepticism about knowing anything about God. We ‘colonise the name “God” with concepts’ but these say much more about us that about God. We can never speak of God; we can only speak about our understanding of God. But this is not a Christian or a biblical approach. ‘After all,’ (writes DeYoung) the Psalms “colonise” God with all sorts of concepts – goodness, might, power, sovereignty, and omniscience, to name a few.’
To be sure, ‘we see through a glass dimly’. But,
It’s hard…to believe that the apostles went off into the world telling people about the God they couldn’t speak of and inviting the people to journey with them as they grew in their mutual un/knowing about the God the disbelieved in.
Rollins is not the first or only writer with a tendency to reduce God to nothing but love (remember Steve Chalke?). Citing 1 John 4:7-16 Rollins argues that John equates religious knowledge with love.
Knowledge of God (the Truth) as a set of propositions is utterly absent; instead he claims that those who exhibit a genuine love know God, regardless of their religious system.
But this reading of 1 John 4 is plain wrong. At the beginning of that chapter, the apostle asserts that there are wrong beliefs about Christ, about false prophets, about antichrists, and about worldly voices that lead us away from God. By testing the spirits we must discern truth from error. Love, unattached to truth, is not the only or the final arbiter.
Love itself is not a sufficient guide to practice ‘unless it is filled up with 1,189 chapters’ worth of meaning.’
As Lionel Trilling warns,
When the dogmatic principle in religion is slighted, religion goes along for a while on generalised emotion and ethical intention…and then loses the force of its impulse, even the essence of its being.
Let us not forget that ‘the story we have to believe and live in and proclaim is a story of glorious doctrinal assertions.’ The drama is in the dogma.