Monday, June 11, 2012

Rev. Chad Lakies On the Emergent Church: A Non-foundationalist Epistemology

Rev. Chad Lakies, a doctoral candidate at Concordia Seminary who was recently called to serve as Assistant Professor of Theology at Concordia University in Portland, has written an article in the most recent Concordia Journal titled “The End of Theology? The Emergent Church in Lutheran Perspective.” In it, he critiques two articles on the emerging church, one by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations titled “The Emergent Church: An Evaluation from the Theological Perspective of the LCMS,” and the other by Dr. Carol Geisler titled “Reframing the Story: The End of the Emergent Conversation.” I’d like to add my response to his response of their response.

I agree with Rev. Lakies that emergents are open to conversation. The average emergent attends an emerging church because their friend said it was a good church and they like the overall worship experience, not because they were looking for a church which “caters to postmodernism” or “rejects absolute truth.” Much of the emergent terminology and thinking is learned once they get there, not discerned on their own over a cup of coffee with a couple of friends at Starbucks. I also agree with Rev. Lakies that there is no specific body of doctrine that you can point to and say “here is exactly what they confess.” As Christians who are free in Christ, we can and should engage them and, like the Bereans, examine in a respectful way what they have to say to see if it is true.

Rev. Lakies says that
To be emergent then means seeing the world in a particular way. It means having certain suspicions about the way various Christian traditions have seen the world because on the basis of historical experience, emergents have learned that here might be better ways to see the world—and they find these possibilities in Scripture. They see Jesus turning the framework of the Pharisees upside down. They wonder if their own frameworks (the traditions in which they have been raised) are not something which Jesus would perhaps turn upside down.
This perspective doesn’t seem unreasonable. Luther was suspicious of the way the Catholic tradition saw the world. He (and the Lord through him) turned the pre-reformation understanding of the phrase “the righteous will live by faith” upside down. But that isn’t what Rev. Lakies is referring to here. He is referring to a non-foundationalist theology, which is a horse of a completely different color. Rev. Lakies continues:
Their sensibilities seem, from my perspective, to jive quite well with the spirit of Luther when he noted that “[I]n reality, the Word of God comes, when it comes, in opposition to our thinking and wishing. It does not let our thinking prevail, even in what is most sacred to us, but it destroys and uproots and scatters everything.”
The rest of Rev. Lakies’ essay rests on this supposition. He characterizes this as the emergent sensibility, and suggests that “they are on the same page as Lutherans.” But this is a false supposition. Why? Because for emergents, the word of God doesn’t come in opposition to the thinking and wishing of the community, it’s just one of the voices in the conversation. Emergents espouse a non-foundationalist theology which interprets Scripture within the context of the culture and the “situatedness” of the community, rather than relying on Sola Scriptura. This, as Rev. Lakies points out, is the “particular way” in which emergents see the world, referred to by them as their “chastened hermeneutic” or “chastened epistemology.” Since we are all located in a certain place or context, our viewpoint must be subjective, and we cannot be neutral. We cannot know how things really are, and must therefore determine truth by means of a larger community. Truth is “situated.” Essentially, it allows for the community to interpret Scripture without necessarily following the original meaning of the authors, and concludes that Scripture can mean different things to different communities in different times and places, including contradictory meanings. The ultimate authority is not Scripture alone, but the response of the community to their own interpretations and feelings, as somehow directed by the Spirit along with tradition, culture, and the Bible. But that doesn’t jive with Luther’s understanding at all. To illustrate the point, here are several quotes from emergent theologian John R. Franke’s article “Reforming Theology: Toward a Postmodern Reformed Dogmatics”:
A nonfoundationalist approach to theology seeks to respond positively and appropriately to the situatedness of all human thought and therefore to embrace a principled theological pluralism. It also attempts to affirm that the ultimate authority in the church is not a particular source, be it Scripture, tradition, or culture but only the living God. Therefore, if we must speak of “foundations” for the Christian faith and its theological enterprise, then we must speak only of the triune God who is disclosed in polyphonic fashion through Scripture, the church, and even the world, albeit always in accordance with the normative witness to divine self-disclosure contained in Scripture.

…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. In this way theology is both one, in that all truly Christian theology seeks to hear and respond to the speaking of the one Spirit, and many, in that all theology emerges from particular social and historical situations. Such a theology is the product of the reflection of the Christian community in its local expressions.

…From the perspective of Christian dogmatics, this approach seeks to nurture an open and flexible theology that is in keeping with the local and contextual character of human knowledge while remaining thoroughly and distinctly Christian.

…In addition to listening for the voice of the Spirit speaking through Scripture, theology must also be attentive to the voice of the Spirit speaking through culture. While Western theology has tended to focus on the church as the sole repository of all truth and the only location in which the Spirit is operative, Scripture appears to suggest a much broader understanding of the Spirit’s presence, a presence connected to the Spirit’s role as the life-giver. The biblical writers speak of the Spirit’s role in creating and sustaining life as well as enabling it to flourish. 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. Because Spirit-induced human flourishing evokes cultural expression, we can anticipate in such expressions traces of the Spirit’s creative and sustaining presence. Consequently, theology should be alert to the voice of the Spirit manifest in the artifacts and symbols of human culture.
To translate that into English, a few examples of how a non-foundationalist theology is articulated may be in order. Emerging church leader Tony Jones opined
…The beauty of the Spirit controlling the text is that it can, indeed, have different meanings in different times … and that the Spirit can use our own experiences and viewpoints to enlighten us to the meaning of the Word.” (Quoted from R. Scott Smith’s book Truth and the New Kind of Christian: The Emerging Effects of Postmodernism in the Church.)
Neil Livingstone, in his article titled “How can you trust the Bible,” says
This, then, is how he has produced the Bible. He works in his people's lives, and then sets them to talking and writing about it. When the people write down their passions, visions, call to holy life, and their interpretations of how God is working in history, and when the believing community around them says "Yes. This is what God is saying to us", then God is pleased. He is succeeding. The humanity of the Bible is not a mark against the divine influence in it. In fact, it is proof that God's mission on earth is indeed going forward. People are willingly joining him -- heart, mind, and soul.

If God had simply dropped a book from heaven into our laps, or used his human creatures as dictation devices, can you see how that would have undermined his whole purpose in speaking to us? But what we see in the Bible is itself an example of the outworking of God's purposes. It's done by people in true partnership with the illuminating Spirit of God.
Notice that inspiration is no longer a player – it’s now about illumination. The Bible, for some emergents, is a man-made product. Revelation doesn’t come in opposition to our thinking and wishing as Rev. Lakies’ Luther quote demands, but comes from multiple sources, including our own imagination, as emergent Brian McLaren states: “We believe that image (the language of imagination) and emotion (including the emotion of wonder) are essential elements of fully human knowing, and thus we seek to integrate them in our search for this precious, wonderful, sacred gift called truth….”

Rev. Lakies comments that “in many ways their voice is worth hearing.” Yes, sometimes their comments may cause us to examine our own house. I doubt however, that if Dr. Geisler were to sit down with the typical emergent and have a friendly chat, that there would be any of the “conversation-stopping rhetoric” that Rev. Lakies assigns to her. People that write articles of the caliber of hers are also often very good at carrying on a winsome conversation with those of a different camp. There’s a huge difference between writing an article for a Lutheran audience as opposed to carrying on a personal conversation with an emergent.

The question remains, what would Luther say having been given the opportunity to study the emerging church. I suspect there would be a hailstorm of invectives that would make Sodom and Gomorrah’s fire and brimstone blush. Luther has given us his opinion on the chastened epistemology of the emerging church in The Bondage of the Will:
To take no pleasure in assertions is not the mark of a Christian heart; indeed, one must delight in assertions to be a Christian at all. (Now, lest we be misled by words, let me say here that by ‘assertion’ I mean staunchly holding your ground, stating your position, confessing it, defending it and persevering in it unvanquished. I do not think that the term has any other meaning, either in classical authors or in present-day usage. And I am talking about the assertion of what has been delivered to us from above in the Sacred Scriptures. [Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, Trans. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1957) 67].
Rev. Lakies says of emergents in his concluding remarks that “they even have something in common with Luther himself and how he did theology.” The non-foundationalist sensibility which Rev. Lakies regards so highly is a position that is foreign to Luther’s thought and our confession. Emergent pastor Spencer Burke once said “I no longer consider myself a tour guide, but a fellow traveler.” 1st century pastor Saint Paul once said “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” Which sensibility will you choose?

There is nothing wrong with listening charitably to what the emerging church has to say. There is something wrong with romanticizing their epistemology and hermeneutic, and torturing Luther in the process.

For further reading:  Pastor Lucas Woodford’s blog post titled “Sense and Sensibility: Emergent Mystique or Emerging Mistake?

photo credit: Nealy-J

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