Chapter 7 of Why we’re not emergent (by two guys who should be) explores the ways in which emerging church people have tended to make a bogeyman out of modernism.
Kevin DeYoung summarises the emergent approach:-
Once upon a time the church was a brighter, fairer place. And then the Enlightenment happened, and the scourge of modernism – systematic theologies, propositions, foundationalism, certainty, creeds, monological preaching, individualism, inerrancy, logic, indoctrination, deductive reasoning – began to crack down on the church.
For Brian McLaren, the goal of theology in the modern era was
to describe God as a scientist describes an object – objective, detached, sanitized of subjectivity, removed from the variable of personal relationship.
McLaren suggests that we will look back our doctrinal structures as we now look back on medieval cathedrals: beautiful, but largely vacant and unused, ‘more tourist attraction than holy place.’
Emerging Christians are, of course, right when they say that the world has changed, and we do need to take into account its pluralist and relativist tendencies. But they are historically naive if they suppose that creedal formulations are the product of modernism. And they may look down their noses at systematic theology, but is not McLaren doing systematic theology himself when he attempts to hear what all of Scripture says about the kingdom of God, and is not Dan Kimball doing the same with worship? But the oft-repeated complaint that the traditional evangelical churches have so objectified God with theological analysis that they have lost contact with the dimension of personal relationship is a gross exaggeration.
On inspection, the differences between modern and post-modern spirituality turns out to be more semantic than substantial. For example, when Kimball says that preaching in the emerging church ‘teaches how the ancient wisdom of Scripture applies to kingdom living as a disciple of Christ’ while the modern preaching ‘serves as a dispenser of biblical truths to help solve personal problems in modern life’, his two statements say pretty much the same thing, but with ‘cool’ language to describe the postmodern and ‘dull’ language to describe the modern.
Emergent folk tend to decry preaching as traditionally understood and practiced within evangelicalism. But in doing so, they may well be defying the New Testament commands to teach, preach, rebuke, encourage, guard against false doctrine, and so on (1 Tim 4:6,11,13; 5:17; 2 Tim 2:1-2; Tit 1:9).
False dichotomies abound: between head and heart, rationality and faith, truth and experience. And,
it is simply wrong to attribute every hint of linear thinking, propositional preaching, or discursive communication to some modern Enlightenment corruption. Calvin preached long, theologically dense, story-less, discursive sermons. If that’s a bad way to preach, fine, but it’s not a product of the Enlightenment, and it’s not accurate to suggest that Calvin, and others like him, intended his sermons only for information.
It would be more accurate to say that ‘the importance of careful discursive exposition and instruction was not inherited from the Enlightenment but from Judaism.’
It is rather disconcerting that Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz is the new model of leadership. Says McLaren,
Rather than being a person with all the answers, who is constantly informed of what’s up and what’s what and where to go, she is herself lost, a seeker, vulnerable, often bewildered.
But is this model consistent with that proposed in the New Testament (1 Cor 11:1; 2 Tim 1:6f; 4:2; Tit 1:6,9; 2:7)? Is the Christian teacher really supposed to be a lost and bewildered Dorothy? What about shepherd, or teacher, or overseer, or herald?
Maybe the emerging church is not so postmodern after all. It looks surprisingly like modern liberalism, with its social gospel, neoorthodox view of Scripture, and its disdain for hell, the wrath of God, propositional revelation, and propitiation.
The preference for ethics over doctrine, the reservations about God’s wrath and judgment, the perceived need to retranslate the Christian faith for a new time, the devaluing of propositional truths, the chastisement of firm doctrinal boundaries, the understanding of missions as social compassion and not conversion – these are all impulses of the modern world. So are the broad tolerance of general religious sentiment that is lacking in specificity and definition, the unwillingness to assert the Bible’s complete truthfulness, the downplaying of original sin, and the direct appeals to bettering the world apart from the call to repent and be born again.