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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Mark Driscoll, the church and the supremacy of Christ

The Christian Associates Thinkings group will be getting together in the Hague in October to explore the question of what it means to proclaim Christ as Lord in a post-Christendom, post-modern and religiously pluralist Europe. With that in mind I recently got hold of a copy of a smallish book called The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor, knowing full well that it was not going to be especially sympathetic to an emerging perspective. The chapter on ‘The Church and the Supremacy of Christ’ by Mark Driscoll caught my eye for a particular reason that I will come to later.

The battle between Reformed and Emergents

Driscoll believes that the main battle line of contemporary theological debate has been drawn between a resurgent Reformed theology and an Emergent theology represented by Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, and that ‘much of the debate between these two tribes results from a conflict of Christologies’. Liberals and Emergents tend to emphasize the humanity of Jesus; conservatives and fundamentalists tend to emphasize his divinity; and both tend to do so to the exclusion of the other side of the hypostatic union.

Driscoll is generous in acknowledging the missional benefits of the emerging church’s recovery of an incarnational christology:

…the Emergent connection of the humble incarnation of Jesus into culture as our missional model is a glorious rediscovery of a biblical truth. It is inspiring a generation of young Christians not merely to sign up for mission trips around the globe, but also to move into neighborhoods in their own city to live in community with lost people as missionaries like Jesus himself modeled. The result has been a refreshing interest in everything from living in Christian community in urban centers to various forms of church planting intended to reach new cultures and subcultures of people who do not connect with more traditional churches. (130)

But he believes that, in the process, the emerging church has reduced the image of Jesus to ‘little more than a limp-wristed, marginalized, hippie-esque, unemployed Galilean in a dress with feathered hair and open-toed sandals - a guy that the average man would be remiss to worship because he could beat up that Jesus’. So we also need to reinstate the image of the exalted and divine Jesus, whom no one would dare to beat up, and for this we must look to the Reformed tribe. Driscoll’s favourite New Testament picture of this Jesus comes from Revelation 19:11-16:

Jesus rides into town on a white horse, with his steely eyes blazing red like fire and a tattoo down his leg that says “King of kings and Lord of lords.” He is wearing white like a gunslinger from an old western and carrying a sword, looking for some bad guys as the blood of already-fallen enemies drips to the ground below. (132)

It’s difficult to know how seriously Driscoll intends all this, but the basic point he makes is that if the church is going to enter the culture missionally and incarnationally, we must remember that we do so under the authority of Christ. ‘Once we have the incarnation and exaltation clear in our Christology, we are then sufficiently ready to contend for the truth of the gospel and contextualize it rightly for various cultures and subcultures of people, as Jesus did and commands us to do’ (133).

Contending for the (Reformed) faith

The role of the church in a Postmodern World is to contend publicly for the gospel of Jesus, which to Driscoll’s Reformed way of thinking really means contending for ‘ten theological issues’ - he would have listed more but was concerned about brevity.

1. Scripture as inerrant, timeless truth. Driscoll accuses Emergent figures such as Rob Bell of introducing a ‘new serpentine hermeneutic’. Bell, for example, says that verses in the Bible ‘aren’t first and foremost timeless truths’. He omits Bell’s next statement: ‘We may, and usually do, find timeless truths present in the Bible, but it is because they were true in real places for real people at real times’ (Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, 62. Nor does he give any consideration to the reasons for Bell’s reluctance to speak simply of ‘timeless truths’. An interesting hermeneutical discussion could be had here, but it would be over how scripture is true, not whether scripture is true. Brian McLaren is also faulted for saying that the Bible is ‘not a look-it-up encyclopedia of timeless moral truths’. That seems to me patently true, but Driscoll gives no reason for his concerns other than the fact that Phyllis Tickle thinks that McLaren is the new reformation’s Martin Luther.

2. The sovereignty and foreknowledge of God. Openness theology and open theism are wrong because they are contrary to classic Protestant theism and Driscoll can cite a string of verses that speak of the foreknowledge of God. My problem with this is essentially that we are not going to address the challenges of post-Christendom on the basis of ‘classic Protestant theism’.

3. The virgin birth of Jesus. Again Bell is castigated, this time for asking what would happen to faith in God if - hypothetically - definitive proof were discovered that Jesus had a ‘real, earthly, biological father named Larry’. Again Driscoll fails to quote Bell’s statement on the next page: ‘I affirm the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth…’, and so on (Velvet Elvis, 27). And again Driscoll appears not to have understood the point of Bell’s argument. My guess is also that he doesn’t understand the significance of the virgin birth.

4. Our sin nature and total depravity. Doug Pagitt has apparently defended Pelagius, arguing that he was excommunicated from the church ‘on false pretenses and for personal and political and not primarily doctrinal reasons’. That sounds to me like a historical question. Does it mean that the emerging church doesn’t believe in sin? Original sin? Total depravity? Of course, ‘total depravity’ is a Reformed rather than a biblical doctrine.

5. Jesus’ death as our penal substitution. Driscoll naturally lambasts Joel Green, Mark Baker, Brian McLaren, Steve Chalke and Alan Mann on this one. To my mind, the narrative-historical argument is still sound: Jesus died in the first place for Israel’s sins, suffering the punishment that the nation had incurred through its persistent rebellion. I agree with Driscoll that the idea of penal substitution is biblical; I disagree that it can be properly understood apart from the narrative about Israel.

6. Jesus’ exclusivity as the only possible means of salvation. Oprah Winfrey is cited for the belief that Jesus is not the only way to God. It’s not clear whether Driscoll regards her as a spokesperson for the emerging church or not.

7. God-designed complementary male and female gender distinctions. I don’t have too much of a problem with the argument that men and women are biologically different and that this is likely to have implications for ‘roles’. No one from the emerging church is cited on this issue. What I object to is the rigid determination of those roles according to the norms of ancient Mediterranean culture and the contingent challenges which these posed for the credible embodiment of the gospel at that time. I certainly do not believe that Paul taught the universal and timeless subordination of the woman to the man.

8. The conscious eternal torments of hell. I think that this is just a matter of bad biblical interpretation. Jesus does not speak of hell ‘more than anyone in Scripture’. He doesn’t even use the word. Now if you’re talking about gehenna, that’s a different matter entirely.

9. The preeminence of God’s kingdom over human culture. I’m pleased with this one because he mentions my book The Coming of the Son of Man, which is why, as I said earlier, the chapter caught my eye. He doesn’t appear actually to have read it, but still it’s nice to be mentioned. Driscoll thinks that in response to a ‘postmodern fascination with the present’ it is increasingly argued (he cites my book as an example) that ‘the eschatological timeline of the New Testament ended with the Jewish age and the destruction of the temple (A.D. 70), and not with the destruction of the world, as we have wrongly understood it’ (139). When the church at Corinth pursued a similar ‘overrealized eschatology’, it led to a ‘laundry list of sins and errors’.

Three quick points in response - if you’re tired of hearing me defend my narrative-historical reading of New Testament eschatology, by all means skip the next three paragraphs.

i) I argue that the New Testament teaches not a realized but a future eschatology. Just as in the Old Testament, however, the prophetic vision has to do with historical events in a relevant and foreseeable future. If there was a form of overrealized eschatology that Paul had to correct at Corinth, it presented itself as an avoidance of the path of suffering (cf. 1 Cor. 4:8-13), which I argue is central to New Testament eschatology. This is a long way from any ‘postmodern fascination with the present’.

ii) As I have had to explain many times, I don’t think that everything has to do with the destruction of the temple; the victory of the suffering church over Rome is at least as important. Moreover…

iii) I strongly contend that the New Testament still holds out the prospect of a final resurrection, justice, and renewal of creation. This is why I don’t think Driscoll read the book. My point is simply that most of the eschatological material has to do not with this final vindication of God as Creator but with the vindication in the course of history of Jesus and of those who suffered for his sake.

10. The recognition that Satan and demons are real and at work in the world. Driscoll does not develop this point. Presumably there is a polemical spin to it as with the preceding bones of contention, but it is not immediately clear what it might be.

Driscoll goes on to present Jesus as the model for contextualized or incarnational missionary activity. As a missionary sent from heaven Jesus entered the culture of his day and participated fully in it ‘while never crossing a line into sin’ - by which Driscoll means that he did not fall ‘into the pitfall of liberal syncretism or fundamental sectarianism’ (140). Driscoll argues for a ‘two-handed approach to Christian ministry’:

In our firmly closed hand we must hold the timeless truths of Christianity, such as the solas of the Reformation. In our graciously open hand we must hold timely ministry methods and styles that adapt as the cultures and subcultures we are ministering to change. (143)

In conclusion…

In many ways Driscoll’s chapter makes for an enjoyable read. It’s the sort of entertaining, pugnacious, fair-ground theology for which he has gained a reputation; and he works hard to  maintain at least a semblance of objectivity and fairness. But it seems to me that there are three basic problems with his argument, apart from the various misunderstandings and misrepresentations already mentioned.

The first is that it reduces mission in a postmodern context to contending - albeit in a culturally relevant manner - for a package of Reformed doctrines. Nothing is said about love or justice or worship or community.

Secondly, an arbitrary distinction is presupposed between the surface features of a culture and the underlying structures of its thought-world. Contextualization is discussed basically in terms of ‘mode of dress, tattoos, piercings, plastic surgery, music styles, use of technology in church, entertainment…, smoking, drinking, and language’ (146). That may still work in the decadent, self-indulgent, fin-de-siècle carnival of American evangelicalism (excuse my cynicism), but it seriously underestimates the nature of the challenge with which the church is confronted in post-Christendom Europe - and many people think that the American church will find itself in the same boat in a decade or two.

Thirdly, I do not think that the answer will be found in the solas of the Reformation, no matter how firmly they are grasped. The Reformation was a Christendom solution to a Christendom problem. Part of the answer, I believe, will be found as we scrape away the thick layers of dogmatic reinterpretation that have built up over time and learn to retell the biblical narrative on its own terms. But I think that the more fundamental need will be for a faithful, Spirit-inspired, community-based renewal of the imagination that will bring to life again the dense, complex, vexed, prophetic drama of the family of Abraham.