A presumptuous appeal to both emergents and Reformed

Read time: 7 minutes

At the beginning of last year a lot of people were proclaiming the imminent demise of the emerging church. That prognosis may have been premature. Andrew Jones is sometimes credited with having written a self-defeating obituary from within the movement, but he has clarified his position: the emerging movement has not died, it has evolved. An upbeat post by Jonathan Brink on the Emergent Village Weblog also suggests that what Anthony Bradley declared dead a year ago was merely a passing form of the phenomenon—and good riddance to it. Meanwhile, the underlying issues have not gone away: “People were still gathering together in pubs, coffee houses and homes, wrestling with questions of faith, reformation, atonement, the goodness of God, what it means to follow Jesus, and how to live in a post-Christian culture.” He goes on to list a number of publications and events as evidence that the emerging movement is still active and influential. He concludes:

The emerging church isn’t dead. It’s just finally wrestled with the angel and won. It’s shedding it [sic] old image, the one that got people so riled up in the first place. The conversations won’t ever go away because in the end, we’re looking for what it means to be human. We’re looking to discover the reality that Jesus was trying to present, one of infinite grace and beauty, stark reality of the kingdom of God in our midst, and a renewed sense of possibility for the restoration of the world.

My own view is that the emerging movement, whether or not it is still functional, must be judged a success for the simple reason that it has helped to change the agenda for the church far beyond its immediate sphere of influence. I think that by exposing the serious shortcomings and flaws of modern evangelicalism, by asking some unaskable questions, by testing some less rigid epistemologies, by practically and creatively re-engaging with a rapidly changing culture, and by embracing marginalization, the emerging church has served as a flawed but nonetheless prophetic sign of the challenges and opportunities that are presented to the Western church as it comes to terms with the terminal decline of Christendom.

But the flaws are not trivial. For example, a recent post by Dan Phillips castigating emergents, among others, for a lack of conviction about central biblical truths highlights the fact that the movement has failed to develop a coherent biblical theology:

But emerg*s, academics, liberals, tough-talking self-promoters? What would they die for? About what are they urgent? They play around with eternal truths, and eternal souls, as if it were all just a great gay game, just a grand faculty tea social.

I think Dan’s scorn is unjustified, but he gets away with the critique because the emerging movement has not done the hard work of constructing a credible biblical alternative to the standard modern evangelical account of the gospel. But that does not mean that the standard modern evangelical account is right. It’s not, as I think can be shown from Dan’s post.

The quoted statement comes at the end of a piece discussing what Jesus had to say about “the majority’s eternal destination”. Dan allows that John 3:16 may not actually have been said by Jesus, but he finds clear evidence in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus believed that the majority of humanity is heading for destruction while only a “few” will find “eternal life”.

Now, I agree with Dan that Jesus does not mince his words at this point: ‘One thing we soon learn about our Lord is that He was not over-fond of gauzy, billowy theological yarning. Jesus shows no great affection for “what-if’s” and “what-abouts.”’ But just because Jesus was forthright and the Pyromaniacs are forthright, it does not follow that the Pyromaniacs are right—or that the emergents, with their “what-ifs” and their “what-abouts” are simply wrong. In fact, I would argue that in many respects the emerging movement—and certainly academics such as NT Wright—have a better grasp of the moral and spiritual seriousness of Jesus’ teaching than the noisy reactionary voices on the Reformed side of the unsightly fence that currently divides evangelicalism.

It is easy to complain that “emerg*s, academics, liberals, tough-talking self-promoters” are playing games with their theology because they refuse to make personal salvation the absolute benchmark, the sine qua non, of orthodoxy—or of orthopraxy. But they are not less serious about their faith in Jesus. They just don’t think that Christian witness can be reduced to a few narrow, rigorous, uncharitable certitudes about personal salvation, heaven and hell, and the subordinate place of women.

Whether many emergents, academics and liberals (I am not greatly interested in the “self-promoters”) would die for their belief that the creator is as much offended by social injustice as he is by personal sin is another matter. Very few of us prattling on about what Jesus really meant have the foggiest idea what it means to die for what we believe. For that we must go humbly and ask the Syrian Catholic community in Baghdad or the Coptic community in Alexandria. The recent attacks on these ancient Christian churches in the Middle East have highlighted—much more effectively than the Pyromaniacs’ simple shibboleths—both the seriousness of Christian commitment and the impoverishment of late Western Christianity.

But the irony is, nevertheless, that in a very important sense Dan’s seemingly orthodox exegesis seriously misrepresents Jesus’ argument about repentance and salvation, destruction and life. The Sermon on the Mount has in view not the story of all humanity faced with the prospect of eternal conscious torment, but the story of Israel faced with the national disaster of war, slaughter, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. When Jesus urges his disciples to enter by the narrow gate, he evokes the same dilemma that Jeremiah put before Israel prior to the Babylonian invasion—a way of survival and a way of destruction, a way of death and a way of life (Jer. 21:8-10). Likewise, Jesus’ inaugural call to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17), was addressed not to all of us willy-nilly but specifically and critically to first-century Israel.

In Luke the teaching of the two ways is given in response to the question “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” (Lk. 13:23). The bystander is not curious about the total number of people who will end up in heaven. He is asking whether many Jews will survive the destruction of God’s wrath against his people. Just because Jesus is recorded as saying, “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk. 13:3, 5), it does not mean he is somehow speaking to all of us. Context matters. Jesus is speaking to the Jews; he is telling them that unless they repent, they too will by killed by Roman swords or buried beneath the rubble of Jerusalem’s devastation.

So even supposing that it is still entirely fitting to call people to repentance and reconciliation with the creator God, a huge amount of theologically important material is elided or obscured by the sort of ahistorical hermeneutic that undergirds so much popular preaching and blogging. The question that Jesus’ teaching forces upon us is not “What must I personally do to be saved?” but “Why is the continuing existence of this particular people so critical?”

The Gospels tell a story about the fate of a community threatened with destruction and about the struggle to find the difficult and narrow pathway that would lead to the life of the age to come. This story, naturally, raises perennial questions about how individuals relate to the God who is worshipped at the heart of the renewed community of the people of God. But it also pushes us to ask bigger and no less urgent questions about the relationship of the church as community, as a society, as a redeemed culture, as new creation, to the society that surrounds it. And arguably scripture prioritizes the social-scale narrative over the personal-scale narrative—a fact which the emerging movement has grasped intuitively, if not always with exegetical clarity.

So at the beginning of a new year I will take the very presumptuous step of urging both those who are ardent for a gospel of personal salvation and those who sense the need to move beyond the modern conservative-evangelical paradigm to look much more carefully—preferably in conversation with one another—at how the New Testament tells the story about the people of God in crisis.

A narrative-historical hermeneutic has the important benefit of subverting and relativizing all our self-serving theological constructions—Calvinist and Arminian, conservative and progressive, modern and postmodern alike. If all it then does is bring us back to a surprisingly unfamiliar and disturbing account of our origins, with a willingness to learn again what it means to be a people dedicated to the creator God in the midst of powerful, uncomprehending cultures… well, that can be no bad thing

Sounds good to me! 

As you move through your series, I hope you demonstrate how Paul does or does not fit into this. Because in my non-specialist reading, I agree whole-heartedly in your depiction of the scope of Jesus 'repent' and 'narrow way' teachings. At the same time, I wonder how Paul fits in here. Even if Jesus is hyper-local, I can see some Reformed folk conceding, Paul takes those very specific themes and universalizes them for the Gentile audience - including us, today. Gehenna might have been a garbage dump outside Jerusalem, but Paul's damnation and John's Lake of Fire justify current evangelical cosmologies - or so the argument might go.

Another difficulty we emergents might have is with God's wrath. 'Wrath,' really? It seems so *beneath* God. Isn't the New Covenant shift to more grace and peace - isn't the justice of God restorative justice? There's a very George MacDonald-esque understanding of all this, if you're familiar with the 19th century Scottish minister's playful yet exegetically adept treatment of divine justice...