I hope that the movement or conversation in its present form will increasingly divide between those who deeply and intelligently desire to be faithful to Scripture while learning to communicate the gospel to a younger generation, and those who, whether mischievously or ignorantly, happily domesticate and distort the Scripture because of their analysis of contemporary culture—and that the former will become among the sharpest critics of the latter.
Relatedly, the hottest theologies today are reformed and emerging. Reformed folks have a legacy of being great defenders of biblical truth, while also being less skilled at contextualizing the gospel for various cultural groups in America. The result is sometimes an irrelevant orthodoxy. Emerging folks are skilled at contextualizing the gospel but often woefully weak at contending for the timeless truths of sound doctrine. The result is sometimes a relevant heterodoxy.
My hope is that what emerges is a blessing of both teams, so that contenders for the gospel become better at evangelism, and contextualizers of the gospel walk away from some of the heretical doctrines (e.g. denial of the inerrancy of Scripture, penal substitutionary atonement, hell, and male pastors) they are considering by returning to Scripture and the legacy of faithful teachers who have guided the church in previous generations. In short, I hope for an uprising of cool Calvinists who can preach the Bible, teach the truth, fight the heretics, plant churches, evangelize the lost, comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable, and compel men to be manly.
Many of the concerns raised by emergent folks have helped the wider church to think through its preoccupation with “Boomer” values. At the same time, I hope that the criticism the movement has received will be taken to heart. The church is not a niche market or a demographic. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, in Christ there is no Boomer or Buster, Gen Xer or Millennial. When will we get off of the movement roller coaster and patiently endure the community that Christ has established for the fellowship and growth of the saints as well as their mission to the world? Hopefully, all of us will take the church more seriously and find ways of integrating rather than segmenting the generations.
At its best, the emerging church represents a valid criticism of the cold, dead, legalism that has killed so many churches. At its worst, it represents an extreme accommodation to the culture that leaves the church looking so much like the world that it no longer has a gospel to proclaim or a platform from which to do it. If evangelicals can sort out the essential, unchanging aspects of the faith from the cultural forms, then we will be better prepared for the next cultural shift that comes our way.
I want to echo a legitimate concern that emergent church leaders have voiced: a reductionistic understanding of Christianity…Finally, and most tragically, many Christians have come to believe a reductionistic gospel. One only needs to say a prayer and walk an aisle to be “saved.” The emergents are right in reminding us that a confession of faith is not the whole story. Salvation is an event, but it’s also a process (Phil 2:12-13). The gospel is the means and the motivation for every aspect of the Christian life – not just conversion. Instead of seeing the gospel as solely about justification, they remind us that it’s also about sanctification—the transformation of our minds and hearts into what he wants and intends for them to be. Our conversion is (as one emerging leader notes) the starting line of a life-long, life-giving journey.
Unfortunately, in the emerging church, these prophetic reactions sometimes swing the pendulum too far. Sanctification overshadows justification, and the glory of the cross isn’t acknowledged. The story of the scriptures overshadows the fact of the scriptures, and inerrancy and authority are lost. The joys of community overshadow the needs for polity, discipline, and worship, and the purity of the church isn’t guarded.
The emerging conversation has drawn attention to the need for both humility and orthodoxy. Humility is an identifier of Christianity, as many have been saying. Yet humility does not mean refusing to say something is wrong.
Unfortunately, humility has become equated with uncertainty, and it has been labeled prideful to ever draw lines or arrive at sure answers.
There are a number of things which we evangelicals as a movement have, on the whole, done rather badly. One of them is history, and a cursory glance at the key texts and figures in the emergent movement would indicate that it is no exception to this rule. So, to put it in a somewhat facetious way, I hope that evangelicals will see the poor historical analysis offered by various emergent leaders and be provoked in reaction to think in more depth about history, how our past is to be understood, how it can help to inform the present, and how it allows us to develop a critical perspective on the world in which we live.
Further, we evangelicals have not really spent enough time thinking about the church—what she is, what she should look like, and how she connects to individuals. The emergents offer, as far as I can see, some valid, if scarcely original, criticisms of evangelicalism in this area.
On the other hand, the generously orthodox aren’t so much interested in talking about revelation or inspiration. If you force them to, they’ll often—like their post-liberal fathers—wave the conversation away with something that sounds vaguely Barthian about God speaking, and the words of Scripture witnessing to what he has said.
If the first challenge to orthodoxy remains in the broad areas of revelation and inspiration, as it has been for some time, the second challenge moves us more narrowly into the area of Scripture’s clarity, or what theologians sometimes call its perspicuity. Is Scripture sufficiently clear for us admittedly fallen, finite, and embedded humans to understand what it means. The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, which has been explicitly affirmed at least since Martin Luther, says that Scripture is sufficiently clear for instruction in the way of salvation and a life that is pleasing to God (2 Tim. 3:16), and that presumes the church in different times and places will agree on what the way of salvation is and what the life pleasing to God is.