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From New Perspective to missional praxis: plotting the tensions

I have come across a number of people recently who, in their different ways, appear to agree that the future of evangelicalism lies ideally in a convergence of the New Perspective and emerging-missional forms of church. The question has been, though, whether such a convergence has any chance of happening given the powerful currents pulling the big ship of modern evangelicalism in quite different directions. What this diagram attempts to highlight are what seem to me to be the two main tensions or questions in the process of establishing a viable, biblically credible alternative to the old Christendom model. The diagram doesn’t solve anything but perhaps it will bring a little clarity.

Change of theological perspective. There are two progressions or dynamics in the diagram, corresponding to the two questions. The first progression or dynamic goes from left to right, from an old theological perspective, which in most people’s minds at the moment is likely to be associated with modern evangelical or neo-Reformed thought, to a new theological perspective, which has its origins in E.P. Sanders’ reassessment of second temple Judaism and is familiar to many people through the work of N.T. Wright.

The old perspective. Under the “old perspective” the New Testament is read retrospectively through the narrowly focused lens of a set of theological abstractions—that is, a belief-set that has been abstracted from the texts under the particular cultural and intellectual conditions of Western Christianity and then used to control subsequent readings of the text. Traditional praxis has been grounded in this theological perspective, but so too has much of the new missional/incarnational church thinking—basically because the missional/incarnational model was developed before question 1 could be properly resolved. But we are running ahead of ourselves….

The new perspective. Under the “new perspective”—all these categories have to be rather loosely defined—the intention is to read as far as possible from within the text, prospectively, giving due consideration to the narrative constraints and trajectories generated by the historical context. It is interesting that this has emerged as a critical but faithful return to Christian origins. I suspect that it is motivated, at least in part and for some more than others, by a desire to by-pass the massive controlling influence of the Christendom paradigm.

Theology-formation-praxis. The second progression or dynamic is a top-to-bottom movement from theology through a process of formation to the concrete praxis of the church. Although this sequence looks theoretically correct, in reality the movement is often in the opposite direction: (Spirit-led) praxis forms theology. I should also say that by “theology” I mean that layer of theological enquiry that purports to be directly engaged with the reading of the Bible and of the New Testament in particular.

Emerging and missional praxis. Praxis, you will notice, comes in two different colours. A significant development in recent years has been the quite radical rethinking of the relationship between church and mission. Traditionally, church has been seen as a secure place of gathering out of the world for a very limited set of mostly “spiritual” functions. Mission was understood either as the invitation—through personal evangelism—to be part of the church, or as the sending of missionaries to establish similar institutions in distant places. In reaction against this many missiologists—Frost and Hirsch spring immediately to mind—have argued for a centrifugal or incarnational approach to mission, according to which the church is by definition a community sent into the world to be the presence of Christ. So centrifugal, so incarnational, has this movement appeared at times that David Fitch has expressed concerns about the “de-ecclesiologizing of the church’s relationship to society”. But that’s another story.

Emerging theology. I initially left out an important theological option represented by people like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell and those who go under the banner of the Emergent movement. In some ways it is a return to a classic liberalism, in others it is a hybrid between the old and new perspectives; often it is just a well-intentioned, eclectic, and not altogether cogent attempt to recover the full social and political scope of the biblical witness. My view is that it does not provide us with a good theological starting point (always keeping in mind that theology is often where we end up rather than where we start), being a much better source of questions than of answers.

However, Jim Hoag quoted a comment made elsewhere regarding the perceived exclusion of the emerging movement from David Fitch’s coalition because the “Neo-Anabaptist/Radical Orthodoxy folks… don’t get that our hesitancy to give solid answers and root ourselves in one particular theological tradition is itself a deliberate theological response.”

I don’t wish to reinforce that perceived exclusion. My primary concern as a New Testament theologian is to ensure that evangelical formation and praxis are grounded in a viable reading of the New Testament, and I think that the New Perspective, over time, will provide the best methodological framework within which to do that. But I do not think that this specific prioritizing of New Testament interpretation in a somewhat positivistic manner should preclude the postmodern instincts of the emerging movement. My suggestion, therefore—though it is a bit of a diagrammatic kludge—is that emerging theology may be usefully inserted into the formation stage, between the new theological perspective and an emerging missional praxis.

Question 1. So a first question or point of tension and uncertainty has to do with the progression from the old perspective to the new perspective. Should the evangelical church—I use the term “evangelical” here very broadly—move at all in the direction of the new perspective? How far should it move? Should it abandon the old perspective altogether? Should we look for some sort of compromise, a composite old-new perspective? My personal view is that we have not yet grasped the full implications of the paradigm shift involved here, and that a much wider gulf may yet open up between these two perspectives—to the point that an “evangelical theology for the age to come” may be quite unlike anything that we are now familiar with. But my point here is only that we have barely begun to grasp the implications of this theological shift.

Question 2. The second question or point of tension and uncertainty arises as a direct consequence of the first. Because we are not yet sure what this new theological foundation looks like, or even precisely where it needs to be constructed—how far do we need to move away from the old theological foundations in order to find solid ground?—we are naturally hesitant to set about the task of describing a process of formation; and praxis is entered upon on a very tentative and experimental basis. Given this and the various pressures that churches and mission organizations are under to produce measurable and “orthodox” results, it is not surprising that we sometimes see a strong drift back in the direction of the old perspective and more traditional forms of praxis (represented by the blue arrow in the middle).

Comments

Andrew,
Forget Jeff Bridges, you are the Dude. This is amazing and will bring great clarity. More than I was expecting. I''ve been compiling some of your thoughts and diagrams to discuss with our leadership and it has triggered some lively, helpful dialog. I see your next book in all of this, maybe titled from one of your previous posts, "The Next Convergence". I'd buy it. Thanks again.

Nice work--- Certainly the most balanced perspective that I've seen, and I share your general optimism regarding the "staying power" of the work new evangelicals and post-evangelicals are doing.

Does the mainline Protestant church have a place in this "convergence" at all, in your opinion? I tend to think that they might provide a further "stabilizing" presence to the mix, while also having already (especially in Europe and North America) an inherent openness towards both emerging theology and the new perspective, as well as a desire to become more missional...

I would have thought that the issue for the mainline churches will be in the first whether there is an impetus for change at all. I’m not in a position to say. In the terms of my simplistic worldview the church has somehow to move beyond the Christendom paradigm, but there may well be post-liberal options that are more attractive or more accessible to the mainline churches than those represented on this diagram. I guess the important point here is that none of these positions is fixed and the boundaries between them are movable. I am confident that both the New Perspective shift and the missional church shift are critical developments, but it is still a work in progress. And of course, it’s also no doubt a good idea to maintain a healthy dialogue between the left and right sides of picture.

Andrew-- thanks for the thoughts. We're all feeling pretty "simplistic" about this stuff as it unfolds, but it seems like you have a pretty good sense for the trends, not to mention a well-read and well-experienced (in a plethora of environments) theology.

I think there are inroads for the mainline church to play a role in this (largely) evangelical discussion because:

a)I (a post-evangelical mainline transplant) and others my age (20-30s) are distinguishing between the historical "rootedness" of their traditions (which is appealing to the "ancient-future" sentiment) and a strict allegiance to institutionalism. As the boomer generation begins to wane, I'm wondering if we'll see more of this, where the liturgial atmosphere actually lends itself to a very missional self-understanding AND practice.

b)Yes, post-liberalism... but also the missional church and the New Perspective all have roots in the mainline traditions... so the theological groundwork is there.

c) The mainline church, as I've discovered by my involvement within it only commencing a few years ago, has been labelled as "flaming liberal" a bit unfairly by the evangelical world. The truth is that there are conservatives and liberals alike to be found, and most are a mixture of some sort.

I agree; it all remains to be seen how it plays out. I am thinking, personally, that there is natural convergence, provided that post-evangelicals leave behind their prejudice and bring their optimism and engagement, and that mainline churches leave behind their institutional self-preservation and bring their compassion and ever-expanding tradition.

I mention it b/c for me, it's not just about having foresight, though... it's about the church's survival in the new millennium. And I see one side with sugar water, and the other with lemons, and I'm wondering why they don't try to make some lemonade! But it's quite possible that I might be all alone on this.

Actually, I should add, in fairness... that I cannot speak to the slightest degree re: the status of the mainline church outside of the U.S. Whatever the future holds for the church, there will probably be substantial regional variety in development.

 

Andrew,

Just re-reading this incredible post. You asked, "Should the evangelical church...move at all in the direction of the new perspective? How far should it move? Should it abandon the old perspective altogether? Should we look for some sort of compromise, a composite old-new perspective? How far do we need to move away from the old theological foundations in order to find solid ground?"

We can preserve acceptance by keeping the old perspective "heavenly/eternal reading", the reading of moderate evangelicalism, alongside the historical/contextual or new perspective reading. But, how close does THAT combination get to becoming something else? At what point does the merger of the old perspective and new perspective become a new hybrid, a new hermeneutic in itself? Why not just go with the new?

And why does this conversation seem to evaporate? Why don't the voices of the NP collaborate or (at least with the more prophetic of the lot) continue bringing forth a clarion call to the church to be hermeneutically more adventurous and imaginative and create a new public relevance directly out of the historical reading? At any rate, we need more articles like this one. I think that in the interests of theological progression it is incredibly important in this hour....though it's no doubt the more controversial, toilsome, painful path.

 

-I know, I keep trying to connect you to the North American evangelical diatribe. But your responses lend insight, shape thinking and bring much needed clarity for our situation. So after reading this morning's Jesus Creed post by Scot McKnight on David's Fitch new book "The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission" and the VERY interesting and, at times, disappointing comments, I immediately wondered what your take might be. And, of course, no problem at all if you pass on it. And thanks for your answer to my question on the martyrs and bodily resurrection!

Jim, I haven't read Fitch's book, and I struggle to get too interested in American evangelicals' concerns about the future of American evangelicalism, for good reasons and for bad. My main reaction to Scot's preliminary outline of the issues is that the Bebbington/Noll definition is misleading and restrictive. It may be a good account of modern evangelicalism, but I don't think it helps us to grasp a biblical evangelicalism, as such. It is just one more of those modern theological lenses through which we misread the Bible. I certainly think that the emphasis on a gospel of personal salvation, which is what three of the four points are about, seriously skews the biblical narrative.