The Emerging Consequences of Whose Ideas?


With contributions below from Gregg Allison, Micah Carter, J. Ligon Duncan, Keith Goad, Jim Hamilton, Jonathan Leeman, and Stephen Wellum.

Maybe you have heard plenty about the popularizers. After all, their shows are selling out. Their books are conquering the best-seller lists. And every weblog, magazine, and e- newsletter in the biz is talking about them.

But where are these Emergent guys getting this stuff? Where do their ideas come from?

It’s worth peeking into the Emergent classrooms to find out. A number of these popular level writers claim to eschew “doctrine.” But you cannot not have doctrine. The eschewal of doctrine is a doctrine, and it rests on certain presuppositions. Whose? What professors are teaching their classes? What books are they dutifully reading?

Until recently,, one of the primary Emergent websites for networking and discussion, offered the following list of recommended “theology” books and authors (listed here in its entirety). Scroll down further, and you will find a brief summary on each author. The jargon might get a little technical. But if ideas have consequences, it’s good to know what ideas are driving such a popular movement in our churches today.

Recommend reading “On Theology” at[1]:

Walter Brueggemann
Ichabod Toward Home: The Journey of Gods Glory
Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination
Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles Hans Georg Gadamer
Truth and Method Stanley J. Grenz, John R. Franke
Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context

Stanley Hauerwas
Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony  

George A. Lindbeck
The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age

Jürgen Moltmann
The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God
Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology Nancey Murphy
Beyond Liberalism and FundamentalismMiroslav Volf
After Our Likeness: The Church As the Image of the Trinity
Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation

N.T. Wright
The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is

(Click here to read Tenth Presbyterian pastor Phil Ryken’s response to this list)

Walter Bruggemann (1933 – )

Author of some 58 books and professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia (PCUSA), Walter Brueggemann is characterized by some as a “post-modern” scholar. Brueggemann himself distinguishes between three perspectives of biblical scholarship and likes to say that all three schools can learn from one another: the modernists, who see no unifying theme in Scripture but believe that every dominant interpretative tradition is a form of social control; the pre-modernists, who affirm a canonical reading of Scripture in light of the church’s traditions (though here he is actually referring to post-liberals like Brevard Childs or George Lindbeck [see Lindbeck below]); and the post-modernists, who do not want to privilege any one reading of Scripture but argue that specific texts yield dynamic new meanings when read in new and evolving contexts. Brueggemann’s own approach to biblical theology, a dialectical approach that seeks to be sensitive both to the historical forces that shaped the text (“in the fray”) as well as to theological meaning of the final canonical form (“above the fray”), reflects aspects of all three perspectives.

This dialectic is worked out through “imaginative remembering.” The Old Testament does not give us actual history or “reportage” of history, but a “sustained memory that has been filtered through many generations of the interpretive process, with many interpreters imposing certain theological intentionalities on the memory that continues to be reformulated.” Memory is critical because Israel has transmitted its faith to us through story. “Story is not interested in ‘deep structures,’ in ‘abiding truths,’ nor in ‘exact proofs.’ It does not trade in ‘eternal realities,'” he writes in the introduction to his Genesis commentary. “Story offers nothing that is absolutely certain, either by historical certification or by universal affirmation. It lives, rather, by the scandal of concreteness, by the freedom of imagination, and by the passion of hearing” (all ital orig.).

Biblical interpreters must therefore not be overly reliant on historical, rational, and dogmatic questions, but should instead yield to the “surprise raids” and “surprise assaults on imagination” of the biblical texts. That said, preaching becomes a dangerous business: “Preaching is a peculiar, freighted, risky act each time we do it: entrusted with an irascible, elusive, polyvalent Subject and flying low under the dominant version with a subversive offer of another version to be embraced by subversives“!

When asked in an interview if Scripture was his authority, Brueggemann replied, “It’s the chief authority to me as long as one can qualify that to say that it is the chief authority when imaginatively construed in a certain interpretive trajectory.”

By Jonathan Leeman, Director of Communications, 9Marks.

Stanley Grenz (1950-2005) and John Franke (1961 – )

Without doubt, until his untimely death in 2005, Stanley Grenz (1950-2005) was one of postconservativism’s most prolific and important theologians. For more than a decade, he was at the forefront of challenging evangelicals to rethink their understanding of the nature of theology, especially in light of the postmodern critique of what is now dubbed “modernism.” Grenz, who served for many years as professor of theology and ethics at Carey/Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, co-authored Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context with John Franke, who presently serves as professor of historical and systematic theology at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield, Pennsylvania.

As the title of the book suggests, Grenz and Franke are convinced that evangelicals need an alternative way of viewing the nature of theology in light of postmodernism’s rejection of epistemological “foundationalism” for a more “chastened rationality.” For them, this entails that theology must employ a nonfoundationalist epistemology which adopts a combination of coherentism, pragmatism, and the later-Wittgenstein’s notion of language-games. In addition, Grenz and Franke develop the insights of Wolfhart Pannenberg (i.e. truth as historical and eschatological) and George Lindbeck (i.e. theological statements are not “true” in the sense that they say anything about a reality external to language, rather they are rules of grammar establishing the grammar of Christian thinking, speaking, and living). Thus, theological statements are not making “first-order” truth claims (i.e. asserting something about objective reality); instead they are “second-order” assertions (i.e. rules for speech about God). Within this understanding of the nature of theology, Grenz and Franke assert that what is “basic” for theology is not sola Scriptura, but what they label “the Christian-experience-facilitating interpretative framework” which consists of three sources—Scripture, tradition, and culture—and ultimately the Spirit who speaks through these three sources to the church today.

In their proposal for understanding the nature of theology, Grenz and Franke are clearly distinguishing themselves from historic evangelical theology and especially what has been meant by sola Scriptura, namely, that Scripture is first-order language and thus the final, sufficient authority for all Christian faith and praxis. For them, Scripture is authoritative because it is the vehicle through which the Spirit speaks, yet in the Spirit’s appropriation of Scripture, the Spirit’s intention is not simply and totally tied to the author’s intention in the text. Hence, reminiscent of Karl Barth, they are reluctant to posit a one-to-one correspondence between the Word of God and the words of scripture.

By Stephen J. Wellum, Professor of Christian Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.

Stanley Hauerwas (1940 – )

Stanley Hauerwas is the professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School. His own graduate studies occurred at Yale. He was later influenced by the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder and the Catholic theologian Alasdair McIntyre. In 2001 he was named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time magazine, and was a guest on the Oprah Show. His major works include The Peaceable Kingdom, The Grain of the Universe (Gifford Lectures), and Resident Aliens.

In his theology, Hauerwas attempts to reframe the discussion away from what he perceives as the false modernist dichotomy following Kant between a liberal turn to the subject and one’s experience of God, and the conservative insistence on a universally relevant, special revelation from God.

Hence, Hauerwas denies that Scripture has the inherent property of “divine authority” for what the church should believe or do. Instead, Scripture is the narrative of the Christian community that is taught by generation to generation, and is used, tested, and developed by people seeking to live out the narrative. Since the Scriptures belong to the Christian community and not some other community, it’s the church that provides the proper interpretation of the Scriptures and confers authority to it. In that sense, Scripture takes a secondary role to the church.

By the same token, Hauerwas criticizes modernist thinkers (liberals and conservatives) for separating ethics from theology, community, and history. Instead he proposes a virtue ethic where a tradition or a narrative-community teaches people the will of God. A person does not act upon rules; rules are secondary to virtue. Rather, a person acts upon the convictions and virtues that have been instilled by a particular community. Hauerwas says that the Christian life as a journey instead of a dialogue, since the dialogue metaphor only allows the believer to go back-and-forth between the law and the gospel. The journey proposes that the Christian develops in character by committing himself to the story of Jesus Christ—the man of peace. (Hauerwas also declares that being a Christian necessarily means being a pacifist.)

Hauerwas is less concerned with who Christ was and more on how he is an example to a community. He believes theology has no “essence,” but is merely an outline to help illuminate the story of a community. Therefore, he redefines the classic doctrines of justification and sanctification out of their historical interpretation. Justification is following in the path of God by Christ’s example. Sanctification is a reminder of what kind of path Christians are on.

By Keith Goad, Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Hans Georg Gadamer (1900-2002)

Hans Georg Gadamer is best known for his contribution to hermeneutics. His most influential work and magnum opus is Truth and Method, which is of particular interest for emergent thinkers. His position in hermeneutics stands in contrast to the traditional and popular position of E. D. Hirsch, Jr. and Emilio Betti. Unlike Hirsch and Betti, Gadamer clearly rejects the notion of authorial intent as the supreme criterion of textual meaning.

Gadamer’s goal in hermeneutics is not prescriptive like Hirsch (i.e., putting forward “rules” for correct interpretation), but rather descriptive in the phenomenological sense (i.e., what happens in the process of our seeking understanding). Gadamer applies the philosophy of Husserl (phenomenology) and the existentialism of Heidegger to hermeneutics to produce what is appropriately labeled “phenomenological hermeneutics.”

Gadamer’s influence on the emergent movement is perhaps most clear in his understanding of “truth.” For Gadamer, truth is not a static concept, but a dynamic one; it is existential, not epistemological. Truth arises in the context of language, which must be properly interpreted according to the community or tradition from where the language originates (notice the similarity with Wittgenstein here). The tradition, not the author, is the ultimate locus of authority in interpretation. Further, there are no objective “answers” but only questions, and these questions are present from within the tradition.

Finally, Gadamer produces a concept related to truth and understanding endearing to emergent culture: conversation. Conversation, or dialogue, is more than just the intersection of two monologues, but rather the search for commonality and mutuality. With this concept, truth is what the conversants agree it to be as a result of dialogue. Thus, meaning, truth, and understanding stem from conversation. Here is Gadamer’s dichotomy between truth and method, where praxis is more highly valued than is objective truth.

By Micah Carter, Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

George Lindbeck (1923 – )

George Lindbeck is a theologian of the “New Yale School.” His interests and writings have been ecumenical and seek to reconcile Protestants and Roman Catholics (he was invited to observe the Second Vatican Council). His major works include The Future of Roman Catholic Theology, Infallibility, and The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age. The latter is his greatest contribution to postliberal theology, where he proposes a theory of doctrine that attempts to reconcile all Christian traditions “without capitulation.”

Lindbeck does not believe the church can go back to a “pre-critical” theory of doctrine. And he reacts against both conservative and liberal “post-critical” theories, whether the “cognitive-propositional” theory of Carl F. H. Henry, which asserts that doctrines proclaim objective realities; or the experience-expressive” theory of writers like Friedrich Schleiermarcher, which finds universality in all religions according to similarities in feelings and attitudes.

Lindbeck proposes an alternative theory by comparing religion to culture—the cultural-linguistic model. Religion provides a set of skills, a grammar, a vocabulary, and a logic that give shape to a believer’s life and thought. Doctrine is therefore defined as “communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action.” It functions like grammar does with language, giving structure to how we think and what we say. Yet that’s all it does. It does not make objective truth-claims that can be used to assess the “grammar” of other religions, just like one would not use an English grammar to assess the Chinese language.

To make this argument, Lindbeck distinguishes between three ways of talking about truth (ontological, categorical, and intrasystemic). He essentially says that a statement is “true” (ontologically) if it achieves or performs the intended outcome within the community of believers (categorical) and in a fashion that’s coherent within the entire system (intrasystemic). Again, the “truth” cannot refer to any “extra-linguistic or extra-human reality” (something outside the system). For instance, the church community’s statement “Christ is Lord” is true not because it can be certain that he really is Lord, but because the community really lives as if Christ is Lord. In short, no proposition can achieve the status of universal objectivity; a proposition can only be true in “determined settings.” The proposition “Christ is Lord” is only true within the Church. In all this, Lindbeck wants it to be known that he is not proposing a “creedless Christianity,” but he does say that creeds are culturally, linguistically, and historically limited.

A further example should help. Lindbeck confesses there is no salvation outside of the church. But he also says there is no condemnation outside of the church. In order for an individual to be condemned, one must learn the unique language and logic of the Christian message by being a part of the church, and then reject it. The goal of proclaiming the story of Jesus is to provide doctrines that are guidelines for how to believe and live, rather than affirmations of objectively true content.

By Keith Goad, Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Jürgen Moltmann (1926 – )

Professor of systematic theology at Tübingen, Jürgen Moltmann (1926- ) is perhaps one of the most influential theologians of the post-WWII period, particularly among liberation theologians. He is best known for his early work, Theology of Hope, which reflects a dialectic between cross and resurrection as the foundation for both a present and a future hope of the transformation of the whole of reality. Moltmann’s thesis borrows heavily from Hegel, adding bits and pieces of the Christian truth claim to Hegel’s scheme of “dialectic” (note also the affinity for the Marxist philosophy of Ernst Bloch here).

Moltmann touches on resurrection again in his later work, The Coming of God, where he argues that God is a future reality drawing everything into himself. In a real sense, for Moltmann, God does not exist in the present, since he is in the future (reflecting an overemphasis on divine transcendence, probably showing his interpretation of Barth). Moltmann does not really believe that there will be, historically, a resurrection from the dead, however. Rather, it is the hope of the resurrection that is what matters most.

The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, of particular importance to emergent thinkers, submits a strong proposal for the social Trinity combined with aspects of process theism, arguing that God is deeply influenced by the world. Moltmann is not a process theist, but his understanding of God’s involvement with the world (and vice versa) is strongly panentheistic. Moltmann’s panentheism leads him to defend a strong ecological concern as well.

By Micah Carter, Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Nancey Murphy (1951 – )

Nancey Murphy is a professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren. She has written a number of books including Whatever Happened to the Soul?, Theology in the Age of Scientific Reason, Reconciling Theology and Science, Religion and Science, and Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism. Much of her work explores the intersection of faith and science.

With the development of neuroscience, MRIs, and PET scans, an ever-growing body of evidence suggests that that much of what used to be considered the realm of the soul—including consciousness, self-awareness, personality, moral sensitivity, cognitive reasoning, memory, volition, even religious aptitude—is intimately tied to neurological processes operating in the brain and central nervous system. This has led to a serious questioning by some evangelicals of the traditional doctrine of humanity, especially as to the reality and nature of the soul and its relationship with the body. Murphy has become known for her perspective on this debate.

She is a proponent of a theory called nonreductive physicalism. She notes what her view denies: “First, physicalism is a denial of dualism. Second, the nonreductive part is the denial of the supposition that physicalism also entails the absence of human meaning, responsibility and freedom.” Then she explains her theory:

What do nonreductive physicalists believe about human nature? For starters, let me put it this way: For dualists, the concept of the soul serves the purpose of explaining what we might call humans’ higher capacities. These include a kind of rationality that goes beyond that of animals, as well as morality and a relationship with God. A reductive view would say that, if there is no soul, then people must not be truly rational, moral or religious; that is, what was taken in the past to be rationality, morality and spirituality is really nothing but brain processes. The nonreductive physicalist says instead that if there is no soul, then these higher capacities must be explained in a different manner. In part they are explainable as brain functions, but their full explanation requires attention to human social relations, to cultural factors and, most importantly, to God’s action in our lives (“Nonreductive Physicalism,” in Joel B. Green and Stuart L. Palmer, eds., In Search of the Soul: Four Views of the Mind-Body Problem, 115-16)

In other words, the “whole person” cannot be identified, as was done previously, with a “soul” (thus, the physicalism of Murphy’s proposal), but neither can it be fully analyzed and explained with recourse to neurophysical processes (thus, the nonreductive aspect of her proposal). The whole person—existing in and with social relations, cultural realities, and divine activity—contributes top-down or downward causal effects, resulting in human meaning, responsibility and freedom. She admits, “Downward causation is a controversial idea.” Yet, “The sense in which I intend it here is parallel to the claim that there are emergent properties…with new causal powers. This is not to say that there are new causal forces, but rather that there are new complex entities with the ability to use lower-level causal forces…in new ways to do new things….This does not involve overriding lower-level laws, but rather selection among lower-level causal processes” (ibid, 136).

In her book Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism, Murphy argues that the intractable Liberal-Conservative divide is due to “foundationalist” methods. With the demise of foundationalism, a postfoundationalist approach like George Lindbecks’s points to a way forward.

By Gregg Allison, Associate Professor of Christian Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Miroslav Volf (1956 – )

After completing his Dr. Theol. under Jürgen Moltmann at Tübingen, Croatian born Miroslav Volf went on faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is now a professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. He is most known for his books Work in the Spirit, Exclusion and Embrace, After Our Image, and, most recently, Free of Charge. In February 2006, Volf hosted a conference at Yale Divinity School called “Emergent Theological Conversation” together with Christian Scharen, Tony Jones, and Brian McLaren.

The atrocities committed between Serbs and Croats in the early 1990s drive much of Volf’s work. The themes of reconciliation, forgiveness, and God as supreme giver figure prominently in his writings and projects. These themes arise in his earlier book, Exclusion and Embrace, where Christians are called to avoid rigid boundaries which exclude others, and to have porous boundaries that both recognize dependence on others for identity (a Serb is made a Serb, in part, by virtue of the fact that he’s not a Croat) and leave space open for reconciliation with the other, even if the other is one’s enemy. In Free of Charge, Volf again offers an account of the radically giving and forgiving Christian life, a life patterned after the forgiveness given to all humanity through the work of God in Christ.

Like Scot McKnight (in Jesus and His Death), Volf affirms what he describes as an “inclusive” view of substitutionary atonement, as opposed to an “exclusive” view. The exclusive view characterizes Christ as a “third-party” who dies “in our place” or “instead of us.” This fails to recognize that guilt is not transferable, Volf says, even if Christ absorbs the penalty. An inclusive view therefore emphasizes the fact that it was God himself, not some third party, who bore the penalty for sin. Also, atonement occurs through a sinner’s identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. Christ “bore our sin,” and the “divine Judge was judged in our place.” Yet sinners share that condemnation with Christ. Christ “died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14). So “Christ’s death doesn’t replace our death. It enacts it.” And “What happened to him happened to us. When he was condemned, we were condemned. When he died, we died.” Since the sinner then participates in Christ’s death, “Death then separates the doer from the [guilt of his] deed” (see Free of Charge, chs. 4-6; esp. 147, 164).

The implications of Christ’s death for “all” are “immense.” “All means all without exception.” So God doesn’t wait for confession to forgive; “God forgives before we confess.” Does that mean God unjustly overlooks unconfessed sin? No, he still condemns sin, and he does so by forgiving it. To forgive someone is to implicitly acknowledge the fact that they have sinned; that implicit acknowledgment, then, is a form of condemnation, i.e. justice. Volf therefore wrote an open letter to Timothy McVeigh in Christian Century on May 9, 2001, one week before McVeigh’s execution, and told him about the amazing forgiveness of God in Christ to the thief on the cross. He then closed the letter, “Timothy, we have never met, and we are not likely to meet in this life. But I will look for you in paradise.”

—By Jonathan Leeman, Director of Communications, 9Marks.

N. T. Wright (1948 – )

Tom Wright is the Bishop of Durham (Church of England). Wright has made significant contributions to the study of Paul and Jesus, being a major figure associated with the “New Perspective on Paul” and having given the “Third Quest for the Historical Jesus” its name. He is engaged in a massive, multi-volume project, “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” which may prove to be as influential as Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament.

The first volume deals with hermeneutical starting points and the history of the second temple period. The second volume presents Jesus from the Synoptic Gospels. The third volume argues for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The next volume on Paul is eagerly awaited, because Wright accepts the conclusions of E. P. Sanders regarding second-temple Judaism. Sanders holds that the Jews with whom Paul was in dialogue were not legalists. If the Jews did not understand themselves to be working for their salvation, then the church needs a radical redefinition of the traditional understanding of justification.

Central to all of Wright’s work is a focus on the grand sweep of the whole narrative of the Bible. He focuses on Jesus and Paul both in their own historical contexts and in salvation historical perspective, asking questions such as, what is wrong with the world? What is God doing to remedy it? Where are we in the story? A major emphasis in Wright’s telling of the Bible’s story is that Jesus came proclaiming the end of the exile and Yahweh’s return to Zion. He holds that the exile reached its climax at the cross, and that membership in the covenant community is the key issue for the people of God.

Wright has had a wide influence in evangelical circles, where he is appreciated for, among other things, his evident intellect and learning, his considerable abilities as a popularizer, his high view of the historicity of the Gospel records, his supernaturalism, and his willingness to engage in the defense of cardinal Christian doctrines (like the resurrection of Christ) even in the context of the liberal academic guild.

However, Wright has also prompted concern amongst evangelicals because of his rejection/criticism of the historic Reformational understanding of key doctrines like justification, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, as well as his outspoken defense of women’s ordination and egalitarianism. More basically, Wright attempts to chart a middle way between what he considers to be equally errant fundamentalist and liberal views of Scripture and revelation (both of which he views as products of modernity that need to be transcended), and consequently his view of Scripture is different from the Calvin-Westminster-Warfield-Chicago Statement inerrancy position.

Those in sympathy with the project of recasting Christian theology in light of our “postmodern” context are often attracted to Wright’s views of eschatology and ethics, with his focus on the “now,” rather than the “not yet” and on the social and structural entailments of the kingdom of God for Christians who want to live out the Lordship of Christ as intended by Jesus and Paul (as Wright sees it).

Of Wright’s view of justification, Bryan Chapell has astutely observed, “Wright’s argument that justification is not so much about how someone is personally saved, but rather who should be recognized as a member of the covenant community can move the focus of our theology from properly emphasizing the personal faith and repentance from which all true Christian assurance and faithfulness flows. Of course, we must grant that there is every necessity of recognizing Christ as Lord, and living out the imperatives of our faith commitments in order to have the assurance of our salvation and express love for our Savior. Still, this necessity is an insufficient reason to question the historic understanding of justification.”

By J. Ligon Duncan III, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor of Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, President, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals; Senior Minister, First Presbyterian Church (PCA), Jackson, Mississippi.
—Also, James M. Hamilton Jr., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Houston Park Place Campus.

1. This list was posted through early July 2006, but was taken down some time in late July or early August. However, David Donaldson cites this entire list in his article “Constructing a Postmodern Church with Ancient Building Blocks,” in McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 6 (2003-2006), 166, which can be found here (PDF).

9Marks articles are made possible by readers like you. Donate Today.