Book Review: Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional, by Jim Belcher
When you can get both Tim Keller and Rob Bell to endorse your book, you’ve really done something extraordinary. Especially for a “third way” book that claims to cut a middle path between two warring camps, getting a couple of generals from either side to meet on your cover and shake hands for the cameras is a real diplomatic coup—a symbol that maybe, finally, you’ve managed to broker a settlement that will issue in a lasting peace.
I just don’t think it’s going to work, though.
I hate to be so short about it, but that’s really my considered judgment after reading and thinking about Jim Belcher’s call in Deep Church for traditional evangelicals and the emergent church to “work together to build evangelicalism.” Frankly, I’m surprised that Belcher, after seeing what his research brought to light, decided to press on with the idea that emergents and traditionals could reunite somehow. If there’s anything the book made clear to me, it’s that the most important thing that divides the emergent church from evangelicalism is not a misunderstanding at all. On the contrary, it is a real and substantive division about the gospel itself, one that’s not going to be resolved by simply (and simplistically) claiming to “learn from both sides” as we “follow a different route.” More on that later.
First, let me give you just a quick idea of what Belcher is up to in Deep Church. Others have offered a more thorough analysis of the book’s contents and even interacted with some of the details of its arguments, so I’m not going to take the time to do that here. Suffice it to say that the main thrust of Belcher’s book is to carve out a third way between what he sees as two titanic—and more or less equally weighted—forces within the broader camp of evangelicalism. On one side are what he calls “traditionals,” represented by Don Carson, Kevin DeYoung, and others. On the other side are “emergents” including Doug Pagitt, Dan Kimball, Brian McLaren, and others. Belcher approaches the impasse between these two camps by examining seven issues that he considers to be central to the disagreement: epistemology, evangelism, gospel, worship, preaching, ecclesiology, and culture. For each of those topics, Belcher traces the emergent church’s critique of traditional evangelicalism and then the traditionals’ response to the critique. Then he offers his own critique of both cases and describes a third way, which he calls “deep church,” that is meant to take what is best and discard what is worst from both sides.
It’s worth saying right from the beginning that an author should think very hard before trying this “third way” approach to analysis. There’s an enormous danger of coming off as arrogant, as if no one has managed to get it right until you came along. Maybe even worse, you can come off as patronizing, as if you’re calling the children together to explain to them how they’ve been misbehaving. In my opinion, Belcher doesn’t avoid those dangers. More than once, for example, he lets us know that he has learned (unlike whom, exactly?) that “even when I disagree with others I can still learn from them” (36). And when Belcher says he’s writing for “the majority” who “want to learn from both sides,” where exactly does that leave those of us in both the emergent and traditional camps who think there are really some serious issues at stake?
Anyway, back to the main point. The real irony of Deep Church is that Belcher actually does a pretty good job of laying out the real, substantive, and ultimately fellowship-breaking issues that stand between emergents and traditional evangelicals, but his whole stated project of finding common ground on which those two camps can reunite falls completely apart, I think, in the first few pages of his book. Let me show you why I say that.
In the book’s introduction, Belcher recounts a meeting between Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and John Piper. The meeting ended badly, with Piper telling Pagitt, “You should never preach,” because Pagitt rejected what Belcher strangely calls “Piper’s view of atonement,” which I have to assume is penal substitutionary atonement. As Piper summed it up, because they rejected penal substitutionary atonement, Pagitt and Jones were “rejecting the gospel in toto.”
Now, this is not the place to rehearse the biblical case for penal substitutionary atonement. I and others have done that elsewhere. So let me just skip to the conclusion of that case and say that Piper is right: To reject the idea of Jesus dying in the place of sinners, taking their punishment on himself for their sins, is to reject the gospel in toto. And therefore it is to make any sort of union between yourself and traditional evangelicalism impossible. To reject penal substitution is to reject the gospel, and to reject the gospel is to put oneself outside traditional evangelicalism.
Knowing what Belcher was trying to do with this book, I entirely expected him to try to show later in the book how emergent leaders don’t in fact reject penal substitutionary atonement. I expected him to quote a passage here or there in one of their writings which leaves open the possibility of penal substitution. That never happens. Quite to the contrary, Belcher concludes in his sixth chapter, titled “Deep Gospel,” that the emergent church (represented here by Brian McLaren) is indeed guilty of “gospel reductionism” (118). “Nowhere,” Belcher says, “does [McLaren] mention…the doctrines of atonement, justification, union with Christ, or our need to be forgiven” (118). True, Belcher makes that statement about a certain article in which McLaren is claiming to articulate the gospel, but his point is that he doesn’t find those doctrines anywhere in McLaren’s writings.
But then, if that’s the case, what’s up with all this hope for a reunion? How exactly do you find a “third way” between affirming the gospel and not affirming the gospel? Yes, of course, Belcher softens his hit on the emergents by saying that traditional evangelicals are guilty of “gospel reductionism,” too. They “make the opposite mistake” of “car[ing] only about their own selves” and ignoring the kingdom of God, he says. But even setting that infuriating straw man aside for a moment, wouldn’t you think that when Belcher finally realized—after a third reading!—that Brian McLaren in fact does not affirm the gospel of forgiveness of sins through the penal substitutionary death of Jesus, he would maybe temper some of the “reunion” talk? I mean, regardless of anything else he writes in the other chapters of his book, surely the most hopeful conclusion Belcher could possibly hold after writing chapter six is that the emergent church could reunite with evangelicals if they’d just make one little tweak to their thinking—affirm the gospel! But then…well, yea. That’s kind of the point, isn’t it?
Look, I think it’s actually pretty helpful for a self-described insider/outsider like Belcher to show so clearly that the deepest division between the emergent church and evangelicalism is about the gospel itself. That’s clarifying. But the fact that he doesn’t seem to understand in the slightest how that disagreement over the gospel would utterly preclude the unity his whole book is calling for is puzzling and disappointing.
On a similar note, it’s also worth pointing out that Belcher’s idea of a “new ecumenism” on the basis of the ancient creeds is not going to work, either. The creeds are not Scripture, and they are not heaven-sent, inspired, once-for-all standards of what it means to be a Christian. All of the ancient creeds were written in response to specific heresies. That’s why they spend so much time talking about the nature and person of Jesus Christ; those were the issues facing the church at the time. The fact is, the atonement and its meaning didn’t come under creed-worthy assault until much later in the church’s history. But that doesn’t mean that the atonement and its meaning are any less important to understanding the gospel as it’s taught in Scripture. Honestly, again, I’m amazed that Belcher—a PCA minister who is presumably well-versed in what was at stake in the Reformation—would think that affirming the ancient creeds would be a sufficient ground for ecclesiastical unity. I’m sure the pope will be delighted to hear that!
Belcher’s book has gotten a great deal of good press since its publication, and many evangelicals seem to have fallen head-over-heels for it as a way forward in the debate between the emergent church and traditional evangelicalism. But to those of you who consider yourselves traditional evangelicals, let me ask you just to pause the reunion celebration for a moment and consider a question: Just how important to you is this gospel that Jim Belcher himself says the emergent church does not affirm? If we can all come to agreement that foundationalism is dead, that we should love the culture and have transcendent worship and love non-Christians, are we really willing to decide that agreement on the meaning of the cross of Jesus Christ is not worth the division? Are we really willing to “work together to build evangelicalism” with people who even Jim Belcher says do not affirm the evangel? I would hope not—and therefore I would hope that the fanfare which has greeted this book would fade a bit when people realize what it actually says.
The emergent church does not affirm the gospel. They don’t hold to penal substitutionary atonement.
Whatever else he says, Jim Belcher could not be clearer (or more accurate) about those two points. And so I say again, like I said at the beginning of this review, that the reunion Belcher is hoping for here is just not going to happen.
Well, actually, I suppose it could…if the emergent church decides to clearly affirm the gospel. Or, on the other hand, if evangelicals just decide they don’t really care that much about the evangel after all. Which of those, honestly, do you think seems the more likely these days?