Book Review: Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, by D. A. Carson
Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)
To me, the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places (Eph 3:9-10).
Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of him who called us by His own glory and excellence (2Pet 1:2-4).
These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1John 5:13).
Pilate’s question at Jesus’ arraignment is hauntingly prophetic of the agnosticism that pervades twenty-first century post-everything culture. But surely the prevailing aversion to truth is nothing novel by now. After all, is it not the ancient essence of sin to doubt the certainty of God’s Word? “Has God really said” (Gen 3:1)? The point of salvation history, however, and the privilege of Christian witness, is to reveal the mystery of God’s redemptive plan so that we might know our sin and our Redeemer and, by that knowledge, share in His divine character and enjoy assurance of eternal life.
In one sense, post-modernity poses new challenges to the church. In another, to borrow language from David Wells, (post)modernity is simply the new worldliness – it makes sin and agnosticism look normal, while making righteousness and truth appear strange. In a world that rejects the reality of objective spiritual truth, then, the local church is called to confront the culture and resist conformity. The Emerging Church movement/conversation rightly recognizes some of the important cultural shifts that have taken place over the past 50 years, and has gained popular ground as a ministry model that seeks continuity with the Christian Tradition while breaking with modernized permutations of Christian witness and worship. But has it been too quick to embrace the latest form of worldliness?
How do we enter the emergent conversation? D. A. Carson acquaints us with the enigmatic movement in his critique Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church, which faithfully grapples with the methodology that is sweeping many Evangelicals off their feet with its warm embrace of mystery, nonlinear thought, and experiential emphasis – not to mention the cool hair and edgy goatees of its cool-kid leaders.
Carson begins by sketching a profile of the Emerging Church, its primary feature being protest against culturally conservative evangelicalism, the arrogance of modernism, and the outdated Seeker-Sensitive church. Emergent thinking, Carson says, recognizes the shift from modern to postmodern as primarily a shift in epistemology, in how we know what we know. It sees that postmodernism has rejected the cerebral, linear thought patterns and absolutism of modernity, embracing instead the priorities of mystery, relationship, the affective, and the experiential. Being a new kind of Christian in the postmodern context, according to the Emerging Church, means emphasizing feelings over rationality, experience over truth, and inclusion over exclusion. In short, the church must think and speak like postmoderns or be discarded to irrelevance.
Before critiquing the Emergent Church’s analysis of and response to postmodernity, Carson gives the reader his own take on postmodernity by contrasting premodern, modern, and post-modern epistemologies. He concludes that the most pervasive weakness of postmodern epistemology is the false antithesis it presents – either we can know something exhaustively or we can have no reliable knowledge of it at all. Yet real knowing and communication do take place, even if the understanding that results is not omniscient. In fact, this must be the case if the advocates of postmodern epistemology expect to be even partially understood, which means that postmodern epistemology is self-refuting – it cannot stand under the scrutiny of its own logic. Carson mentions the moral morass that postmodern thought introduces, making it impossible for anyone to know anything well enough to say that even Hitler’s actions were objectively wrong. The delicious irony is that, in all its passion to eclipse modernism, postmodern epistemology merely serves to widen the Kantian (modern) gap between the noumenal and the phenomenal. While its rejection of foundationalism and objectivism present elements of discontinuity with modernism, its false antithesis between omniscience and absolute ignorance simply strengthens the predecessor it aims to displace.
While the starting point of both modern and postmodern knowing is the self (“I think, therefore I am”), Carson rightly contends that all human knowledge is a subset of God’s knowledge, and must therefore begin not with the self, but with God’s self-revelation. “God is, therefore I am. God speaks, therefore I can know.” According to Carson, the Emerging Church’s uncritical acceptance of postmodern thought constitutes its most consequential error. The reason is that biblical spirituality is built on the objective, historical, and written self-revelation of God in Scripture, while postmodern epistemology reserves no place for this kind of revelation. When emergent thinking uncritically buys into postmodernity’s emphasis on feeling and relationship over truth, it sacrifices the historical and doctrinal objectivity of the gospel on which all true Christian experience is built (1Cor 15:12-19). We must at least be able to know and say for certain that Christ died and was raised from the dead, otherwise we are still in our sins and are stuck doing evangelism without an evangel.
Carson then illustrates the exegetical and historical sloppiness of the best Emergent thinkers by critiquing Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy and Stephen Chalke’s The Lost Message of Jesus. He quotes both authors, in context, styling substitutionary atonement as a cosmic or divine form of child abuse.
The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic childe abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. . . . Such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement ‘God is love.’ If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by His Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil (Carson quoting Chalke, 185).
Having surveyed McLaren and Chalke on substitutionary atonement, hell, the personal reality of Satan, original sin, and their tendency to domesticate God’s holiness and wrath with a truncated view of His love, Carson rightly concludes that “both McLaren and Chalke have largely abandoned the gospel” (186).
With the critical spadework completed, Carson provides 9½ pages of biblical passages on truth, the reality of accurate human knowledge (esp. Luke 1:3-4 and 1John 5:13), and on knowing enough to recognize idolatry. He then spends the remaining 32 pages expounding relevant Scripture and its implications for the gospel and emergent thinking.
If you are a vocational pastor or church elder, this is one of those books you’ll want to read for multiple reasons. It will be a helpful read for keeping up with the all-too amoebic face of American Evangelicalism and learning how to respond to unfaithful permutations of the gospel. But it will also be useful as a model of how to interact wisely, graciously, powerfully, and faithfully with errant views and mistaken people. Carson minces no words, but his tone is consistently fair, kind, and gracious.
The strengths of Carson’s critique are myriad. It is evident that Carson has listened well to the concerns of multiple Emergent leaders. He takes the best arguments of the most articulate proponents, and has been very careful not to generalize or demonize. Although the content is complex, especially as it intersects with postmodern epistemology (how we know what we know), Carson has succeeded in putting his material on a shelf that everyone can reach, even if you have no background in philosophy or epistemology. He is characteristically nuanced in his understanding of history, theology, and philosophy such that he avoids generalizing criticisms of modernism and postmodernism, and works very hard to respect the diversity of the Emerging Church movement itself. It’s helpful, too, that he sees and receives the insights of postmodernity, while not capitulating to the elements of it that are inimical to the gospel. He accepts postmodernity’s reminder that human knowledge is finite and often biased by social location, and even recognizes a form of cultural adaptation in the ministry of Paul (Acts 17); yet he places himself, postmodernity, and emergent thinking under the authority of Scripture, and remains faithful to the priority of God’s self-revelation as the only starting point for a distinctively Christian epistemology.
One of the primary contributions of the book is that it models exegetical and theological faithfulness in discerning the merits of a particular ministry method, and the pastoral courage to swim against the cultural current. Many might bristle at Carson’s pronouncement that two self-proclaimed evangelicals have largely abandoned the gospel. I’m sure he’ll take heat for that, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he has already taken a few on the chin for being as clear as he has been. But the truth is that too many pastors and theologians today are too timid to make such statements when fundamental elements of the gospel are denied by church leaders. Too many have also failed to distinguish between the judgment that discerns and the judgment that condemns. God expects the former as part and parcel of faithful pastoral ministry, evangelical scholarship, and lay churchmanship (1Cor 5:9-13). God reserves the latter for Himself (Matt 7:1). The distinction is often lost in unwitting capitulation to the postmodern demand for a tolerance that no longer even presumes there is objective truth about which to disagree. And here, of course, is where (perhaps why?) Carson rightly points out the failure of emergent thinkers to faithfully critique the postmodern milieu in which they ground their methodology. Biblically, it is a failure to “examine everything [including postmodernism] carefully, hold fast to that which is good, [and] abstain from every form of evil” (1Thess 5:21).
There is no virtue in beating around the bush when it comes to doctrinal error and those who entertain it. It shows no love for the gospel, for the church, or for the people who propound the error. Preserving unity for unity’s sake is nothing. I cherish John 17, but what good is unity if no one cares to defend and clarify Who and what it is that we’re uniting around? For that matter, what good is evangelistic ministry if we lose the evangel?
In this more practical regard, it might have been nice to see Carson spin out the implications of emergent thinking a little further. I’m sure his space limitations restricted his fruitful pen, and I can imagine this is only one project of many on his already full plate. He has certainly dealt successfully with the heart of the issue, which is truth and knowledge as we find them in Christ, the gospel, the history of salvation, and the Scriptures. Still, I wonder if a second edition might benefit from an additional, application-oriented chapter on the dangerous similarity of the emerging church’s spirituality to experiential New Age spirituality, the specifically word-centered spirituality of the Bible, potential intersections with a wrong-headed ecumenism, perhaps a bit more on how emergent thinking blurs the intended distinctiveness of the church from the world, the errant but rampant idea of increasing evangelistic effectiveness by mirroring cultural preferences and trends, and the emergent return to iconic forms of worship. Some of these were mentioned with tantalizing brevity, but more could fruitfully be said. Doubtless, if given twice the space, Carson would have addressed these and other implications I’ve failed to recognize.
Having said that, however, the book is tremendously useful, and Carson has again served the church well, this time by providing a timely, incisive, gracious, and well argued critique of an evangelical trend that may better be forgotten than followed. I respect his pastoral courage, I appreciate the clarity and winsomeness of his writing, and I am grateful that he loves the gospel more than the ease of anonymity. Read it and profit.