Two major developments, very broadly speaking, have impacted modern Western evangelicalism over the last decade. With regard to praxis the emerging church movement has challenged traditional patterns of church life and mission and has set out—in more or less experimental fashion—new, fresh, innovative, down-to-earth, enterprising, risk-taking, controversial, incarnational, and, of course, missional ways of being church. With regard to theory the New Perspective has challenged the traditional rationalized presentation of evangelical beliefs, arguing that New Testament theology is a fast flowing river cutting through the landscape of a particular history, not a vast undifferentiated, universal flood covering the whole plain of human existence. The New Testament is not an allegory of personal salvation. It is the complex account of the crisis of first-century Judaism and the painful struggle to bring about the renewal of the people of God. Theology needs to be recontextualized.
What these two developments signal, in my view, is the demise of a modern evangelicalism for which “church” is merely the slow and pointless accumulation of saved souls, and scripture just a massive, dense and largely impenetrable way of saying that God so loves you (singular) that he gave his only Son.
The New Perspective is a work in progress, but it has the power, I think, over time to generate a new, robust, realistic, and profoundly biblical evangelical identity, in credible continuity with the narrative of the New Testament.
The emerging movement has been a messy and at times incoherent attempt to liberate people from the claustrophobic mindset of the modern church, but it has changed the rules of engagement for many believers and many communities. It has demonstrated that church in the aftermath of the collapse of Christendom must adjust to marginalization, must find ways to develop an authentic sense of community, must develop habits of cultural, moral and intellectual integrity, must discover in itself the power of the creative Spirit, must concretely and practically embody the compassion and justice of God, must learn to tell a publicly significant story, must become an incarnating presence in the world rather than a programmed absence….
These two developments need each other. Despite the endeavours of popularizing scholars such as N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, the New Perspective remains largely confined to the academic sphere, a matter of difficult abstractions concerning Judaism and justification. We are only slowly beginning to grasp the revolutionary—and re-invigorating—implications of its shift in outlook for teaching and formation in church communities. The emerging movement, on the other hand, has suffered from a lack of theological clarity and direction, and to my mind would benefit greatly from engaging constructively with the New Perspective.
This has all been a great oversimplification, but in my more optimistic moments I imagine that the future of the people of God after Christendom lies not with the reactionary neo-Reformed folks, for all their good intentions, but in the convergence of these two powerfully creative forces. There, I said it.