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

(Editor’s Note: The posts and comments on this site often include jargon and terms that are not understood by all of our readers. In an effort to explain one of those terms Scott Diekmann has written a 5 part series for us on the Emerging Church. We welcome Scott and his new column on apologetics. His posts will be archived on the Regular Columns page of the site. You can read more of Scott’s work on his blog titled Stand Firm.)

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?

About Scott Diekmann

Scott is a lifelong LCMS layman. Some of his vocations include husband, dad, jet driver, runner, and collector of more books than he can read. Oh, and also chocolate lover. He’s been involved in apologetics for over a decade, is on the Board of Regents at Concordia Portland, and is a column writer for the sometimes operational Around the Word Journal. He’s also written for Higher Things Magazine, The Lutheran Clarion, and has been a guest on Issues Etc. as well as the KFUO program Concord Matters.

Comments

The Emerging Church, Part 2: A “Chastened Hermeneutic” — 9 Comments

  1. Huh?!? No, seriously, the Emerging Church “theologians” write in a way that would make a government bureaucrat proud. …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…

  2. “In the end, it is not Holy Scripture that is authoritative for Emerging Church beliefs, but the community itself.” But when you quote Luther, are you not appealing to the authority within a community?

  3. Len,

    We beleive that words carry meaning as signs of real things. Therefore, we are able to judge the truth of Luther’s words against the truth of Scripture. We do not accept Luther because he is in our community or formed our community. We accept those things which he teaches that correspond with the truth of Scripture.

    Extreme emergent types believe that meaning is in the community, the speaker and the receiver. Therefore, they give up the truth of scripture.

    Does that make sense?

    Pastor Rossow

  4. Do you think this movement is just the latest manifestation of what Niebuhr called “the Christ of culture” (with all of its attendant dangers and distortions), or is there more to this “Emerging Church” nonsense?
    -Matt Mills

  5. Luther was most decidedly not of our culture. His was a time of powerful popes and emperors, a single church, executions by the church, executions by the state, uprisings, rampaging turks, indulgences and intrigues, peasant uprisings. He never heard of genes or evolution or relatively. He never watched Baywatch. His words are meaningful for us because they are objectively true, not because they were true in his strange and frightening culture.

  6. Matt,

    Overall I’d say that the EC is indeed “the Christ of culture.” It’s mainly a social gospel. I’d say that it follows in the steps of other “ism’s” of the past, like the Anabaptists, the Jesus Movement. It has many of the marks of modern liberal theology.

    While it may have an impact on the theology of the future, I don’t think it will be a positive impact, because they generally don’t follow the teaching of Christ – in fact, many don’t teach anything!

  7. Len,

    The Luther quote comes from the Book of Concord, which accurately sets forth the plain Word of God. It’s not something cooked up over an enthusiastic cup of Starbucks. The authority I’m appealing to is God, not God plus experience plus a small group of people.

  8. Thanks Scott,
    For Niebuhr “the accommodator of Christ to the views of the time erases the distinction between God and man by divinizing man or humanizing God,” and that’s just where this “Emerging Church” nonsense is leading.

    No matter how “timely” or “cutting edge” a movement might appear, I have yet to run into anthing that I’d consider a “new heresy,” the Devil apparently likes recycling too.

    Call me a stick in the mud, but of the choices given, I’ve got to stay w/ “Christ and Culture in Paradox,”
    -Matt Mills

  9. Thank you for the nice very nice intro/summary here. A minor note…the great Pieper Dogmatics’ quote is actually Pieper quoting Gottlieb Christoph Adolph von Harless.

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