Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Emerging Church, Part 2: A “Chastened Hermeneutic”

In Part 1, we closed with Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren waxing of the need for something radically new, a new church, a new spirituality, a new framework for our theology, and an new Christian. That new Christian will be one with a “chastened hermeneutic,” according to the Emerging Church. The old methods of objective Biblical exegesis and universal propositional truth just won’t cut it in a postmodern world.

According to the postmodern way of thinking, to quote Gene Edward Veith, “Postmodernist theories begin with the assumption that language cannot render truths about the world in an objective way. Language, by its very nature, shapes what we think. Since language is a cultural creation, meaning is ultimately (again) a social construction. (Postmodern Times, p. 51)

In postmodern parlance, words apart from a cultural context cannot be understood or transmit meaning. If you live in Sri Lanka, I won’t be able to effectively communicate with you because of our differing cultural perspectives. This is one of the reasons why the Emerging Church places such a heavy emphasis on community. “One cannot understand the truths of Christianity as an outside observer. One needs first to experience the embodied truth of the community.” (Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures, p. 125) “As we had said before, we cannot simply ‘go to the book.’ Truth cannot properly reside as a mere proposition of a page. Truth lives in persons and relationship.” (Emergent author Neil Livingstone; online reference)

Truth is thus “made” through the interaction of the specific local community. By now you may be picking up on the obvious – if truth is manufactured locally, then there can be multiple versions of “truth.” While this thought sounds absurd, it is wholeheartedly embraced by the postmodern mind, and some members of the Emerging Church as well.

How can all of this possibly fit together in a Christian framework? Emerging Church theologian John R. Franke has the answer:

A nonfoundationalist conception envisions theology as an ongoing conversation between Scripture, tradition, and culture in which all three are vehicles of the one Spirit through which the Spirit speaks in order to create a distinctively Christian “world” centered on Jesus Christ in a variety of local settings. ...Such a theology is the product of the reflection of the Christian community in its local expressions. ...Because the life-giving Creator Spirit is present in the flourishing of life, the Spirit’s voice resounds through many media, including the media of human culture. (online reference)

Dr. Franke is here propounding the heresy of Neo-Orthodoxy, joining other enthusiasts throughout the centuries who believe that the Holy Spirit works without means. As Luther points out, “God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. Whatever is praised as from the Spirit–without the Word and Sacraments–is the devil himself.” (Smalcald Articles III, 8) Culture is not a means of grace.

In the end, it is not Holy Scripture that is authoritative for Emerging Church beliefs, but the community itself. Scripture is demoted to one member of the governing triad of culture, tradition, and the Bible. Once community is offered a seat at the theological table, the revelation of God found in His Word is supplanted by “experience” and spiritual disciplines. Dan Kimball, one of the conservative Emerging Church leaders who has spoken at LCMS events, has also succumbed to the mystical practices of labyrinths, lectio divina, and contemplative prayer to locate his “truth.”

The words of Dr. Francis Pieper ring true against the Emerging Church’s lack of fidelity to Holy Scripture:

“Even though the Word of God in itself does not need interpretation, still our hard hearts and deaf ears stand in need of the voice of the heralds and the preachers in the wilderness. And this again not as though Christ’s words were too high and deep, too obscure and mysterious, but because, as Luther correctly saw, we human beings in our perverse desire to reach false heights, like blind idiots, take no notice of the divine simplicity of the words of Christ.” The first and foremost duty of the exegete consists in holding the flighty spirit of man to the simple word of Scripture and, where he has departed from it, to lead him back to the simple word of Scripture. (Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 1, p. 360)

Since theology is determined through the living out of Christian practice in the community, and words cannot be trusted to convey meaning outside the community, it is no surprise that evangelism would lose its verbal thrust:

Evangelism or mission for me is no longer about persuading people to believe what I believe, no matter how edgy or creative I get. It is more about shared experiences and encounters. It is about walking the journey of life and faith together, each distinct to his or her own tradition and culture but with the possibility of encountering God and truth from one another. (Pip Piper, Emerging Churches, p. 131)

The question is, what does this faith look like? We will answer that question next in The Emerging Church, Part 3: What Gospel?

This post was also published on The Brothers of John the Steadfast website.

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