Forgotten Word Ministries

My Reflections on the Emerging Church

Home          Literature          Free Newsletter          Contact Us          ARTICLES          Discussion Board

 My Reflections on the Emerging Church Following Presentations by Dr. John Franke, Oct 2 – 3, 2007, E. Stroudsburg, PA

 By means of introduction the whole idea of the “emergent church” is a very slippery one.  There is no one theological treatise on which to make an assessment.  For sake of clarity in this discussion I will define the emergent church as follows:  Those Christians who have embraced many of the presuppositions of post-modernism, and are attempting to press historic Christianity through this grid of understanding.

 Secondly, the emergent church can be likened to a mood:  There seems to be a sharing of certain presuppositions and attitudes in approaching historic Christianity; however, not all of the conclusions are the same.  Thus, as I write below, there is a good chance that someone who identifies himself with the emergent church may say, “Well, that is not what I believe.”  Granted.  However, as I stated there is a mood about the emergent church.  As I have read books by emergent leaders and have gone on-line to read “conversations” I note the following:  When statements are declared that trivialize or make light of great Christian thought or doctrine, there is never a rebuke that follows.  Blasphemous statements go unchallenged.  Sloppy exegesis is ignored.  Instead, the “conversation” merrily continues.  This is the prevalent mood of the emergent church. 

Thirdly, I wish to extend the greatest charity to all who embrace the emergent church.  I believe there are genuine Christians in the movement, and where true truth about the Christian message is proclaimed, there is genuine fruit.  Again, as alluded to, making a critique about the emergent church is like catching fish with bare hands.

 Finally, it must be recognized that the emergent church has brought to the attention of the evangelical church as a whole to do a careful exegesis of the prevalent culture.  It is true, we now live in a post-modern age.  The church must learn to understand the mindset of the culture if she will influence the culture for Christ.  There have been many good critiques of current culture written by emergent leaders which are helpful to read.

 With that being said, I must now communicate with you my uneasiness with the emergent church movement:

  1. The emergent church (EC) has uncritically accepted the presuppositions of post-modernism: no certainty of truth, no absolute truth, no universal truth.  To make any of these claims involves making a self-defeating statement:  “Are you certain there is no certainty of truth?”  So at the get-go they are building on sandy foundations.

2.  Dr. John Frank, a leading EC theologian recently made the claim at a local church conference (Pinebrook Bible Conference, E. Stroudsburg, PA, Oct 2 – 3, 2007): “I can have no certainty of knowledge, but I can have certainty of faith.”  I will let Francis Schaeffer give the rebuttal:

(Referring to the dichotomy of “downstairs rationality” being separated from “upstairs faith” by an impassible “line of despair”:)  “If what is placed upstairs is separated from rationality, if the Scriptures are not discussed as open to verification where they touch the cosmos and history, why should one then accept the evangelical upstairs any more than the upstairs of the modern radical theology?”  (p. 77,  Escape From Reason).   

Francis Schaeffer goes on to take this “leap of faith” to task.  Does this “leap of faith” sound like Karl Barth and neo-orthodoxy?   I have not yet read anywhere in any of the emergent church literature anything positive to say about evidential apologetics.  Why not?  My guess is because of the presupposition that they can have no certainty of knowledge: If one “can’t know” anything for certain, why look for evidences.

  1. The EC is uncomfortable with propositional truth.  However, is not all of their literature riddled with propositional truth?  Don’t they want the rest of us to believe their truth claims?  The EC says that the Bible was told as “story.”  But to understand a story isn’t it assumed that there are inherent propositions in the story that all have agreed to?  (Otherwise the story would be totally incomprehensible).  Ex: “Little Red Riding Hood” - Do we all know what a girl is?  Do we all know what woods are?  Do we all fear the cunning of a wolf?  Even so the Scriptures are full of propositions about God.  If one ignores these, the “story” of the Bible becomes unintelligible.
  1. The EC is trying to squeeze the Bible through the grid of post-modern thought.  I will let B.B. Warfield reply as written in 1913:

“No one will doubt that Christians of to-day must state their Christian belief in terms of modern thought. Every age has a language of its own and can speak no other. Mischief comes only when, instead of stating Christian belief in terms of modern thought, an effort is made, rather, to state modern thought in terms of Christian belief.” (Works 10, p. 322.)

This is where the EC goes astray.  They accept the presuppositions of the prevalent culture and examine the Bible in light of them.  However, historic Christianity begins with the Bible and informs the culture.  If the EC began with the Bible they would not disparage certainty of truth, absolute truth, or universal truth.  Scripture is full of these.  The whole point of I Cor. 15 is that the resurrection of Christ was a verifiable fact, and our certain faith rests on this certain knowledge.

  1. Again, Dr. Franke, at the same meeting stated that finite man cannot comprehend the infinite God, that only God has ultimate truth.  If he means by this we cannot understand God exhaustively this is true.  However, in the mean time, I can know true truth about God because on the other side of the ledger I am like God since I have been made in His image.  We each have personality.  Personalities can communicate, and the Great Personality has communicated already through His word.  I can with certainty comprehend a lot about God because I can read what He has given us in His Word.  All of these statements stressing the “incomprehensibility” of God against the knowability of God again seem like Karl Barth and neo-orthodoxy, which has been soundly refuted in the annals of evangelical orthodoxy, and I will not attempt to refute them here.
  1. The EC has a dialectical approach to theology (again, read neo-orthodoxy).  This assumes the premise of Hegel who said that thesis leads to antithesis which results in a synthesis, the new thesis.  One then never comes to a conclusion.  Doesn’t this sound like the “conversations” that spin endlessly, as somewhere it is written, “always learning, but never able to acknowledge the truth”?
  1. Dr. Franke, as well as many of the EC leaders, says that he is uncomfortable with systematic theology.   Why?  What is systematic theology but simply comparing what one Scripture says with what another Scripture says, and drawing conclusions from the two.  If I were to walk through the woods, after a while I would note that certain trees have certain differences and similarities between them.  Upon further investigation I may classify some trees as oaks, some as maples and so forth.  As I walk through the Scriptures I notice many statements about God and man.  I compare these statements and make conclusions.  Everyone does this when they read the Bible.  However, not everyone does this consistently or carefully.  Systematic theology proper helps us to organize our thoughts about what the Bible teaches.  My own personal feeling is that the EC is uncomfortable with systematic theology because if they were to begin to organize their own teachings more carefully they would see glaring flaws, inconsistencies, and sloppy exegesis. 
  1. Dr. Franke also said at this recent conference that he is uncomfortable with trying to define the essence of the gospel.  He quoted Leslie Newbigin:  “There is no pure gospel.”  And why isn’t there?  Well, given there is no absolute truth for us to know, given that the EC feels uncomfortable with both propositional truth and systematic theology, how could one possibly define the gospel based on their presuppositions?  

So the EC is left with no gospel, no good news for the nations.  This is why I have felt when I read EC literature I sense no conviction of true guilt before a holy God, no great appreciation for the atoning work of Christ on the cross, no longing for heaven.  EC is very big on bringing in the Kingdom of God to earth now, they are big on “Christian spirituality,” big on an “encounter with God,” but the pining for heaven as expressed by the Apostle Paul in Phil. 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, to die is gain,” I sense very little. 

If there is no real gospel, no real people will go to a real heaven. And this is the burden of my heart.

 Francis Schaeffer anticipated the EC movement with striking clarity 40 years ago in his book, Escape from Reason.  I encourage you to carefully read this if you would like to follow up on my thoughts.

 In conclusion - The emergent church is currently enjoying widespread popularity amongst the general Christian populace.  One reason I feel they are doing so is because they are living off the fruit of 500 years of careful biblical theology and exegesis.  But the root has been severed.  As they drift further from historic Christian faith and begin to live even more consistently with their foundational presuppositions, the movement as a whole will slowly morph into relativism, liberalism and/or Catholicism, depending on the bent of a given pastor or teacher.  Unfortunately this will come at the expense of the term, “Evangelical.”  Other biblical terms will lose their meaning as the EC import their own meanings into words, meanings divorced from careful exegesis of Scripture.  There will be overall confusion in the church and the gospel will be enveloped in fog.

 Scott Tibbetts

M Div 1994, Biblical Theological Seminary         Send us your thoughts on this article?