An Excerpt and Some Reflections

From Doug Wilson’s critique of Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy (quotation marks indicate that he is quoting from the book itself):

“Perhaps this kind of pro-testifier would be better called post-Protestant, since the first definition is so dominant. Either way — this to me is truly wonderful — both Catholics and Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, too, can come together as pro-testifiers or post-Protestants now, because together we are reaching a point where we acknowledge not just ‘their’ failures, but ‘ours'” (p. 128). Post-protestant, ha!. This is yet one more example of what happens when a certain kind of protestant thinking goes to seed. It results in rabid individualism. Think about it for a moment. When we use prefixes like post, it makes sense when we have enough distance to make out a clear distinction that we then need a word for. This is why we have post-colonial eras, and post-Nicene fathers, and whatnot. But when an individual does this in order to describe his own personal identity, the result is just funny, on the same order as me personally seceding from the Union and establishing the Republic of Doug.

To describe yourself as a post-Protestant in a world still full of millions of regular old Protestants and regular old Roman Catholics is an attempt to wrap your personal thought preferences in the cloak of history — moreover in the cloak of history that hasn’t happened yet. I might just as well describe myself as an ante-Elizabethan writer (Elizabeth IX of the United Kingdom and Greater New England). At the end of the day, McLaren is just attempting to describe the thoughts in his head, and he is trying to make us feel like they are part of some larger historical necessity. But there is no reason for believing this to be true.

Wilson has voiced something that resonates with what I have been thinking for a long time. Every “emerging” person that I have ever met is a nice person who genuinely cares about others. I have heard the same about Brian McLaren, and I don’t doubt it for a second. It comes across clearly in his writings. (Of course, you know a “but” monkey is coming…)

BUT, while the emerging church, generally speaking and from my limited experience, demonstrates great humility in personal interactions (which is very important, and is something that I do not want to take away from them at all), it seems that their whole intellectual project could use a big dose of humility. The emerging church is, essentially, seeking to redefine almost everything about the Christian faith. They are almost trying to invent a whole new language (the way Tolkien did, only unlike Tolkien, they expect it to be used in the real world). They attach the word “post” to anything, and they think they have come up with a category that transcends the divide and moves us into a new era. As Wilson correctly points out, the “post” prefix doesn’t work that way. “Post” only gets attached to something after the fact, and by a consensus opinion of people who have the historical distance to evaluate the categories involved. It’s kind of like when George Costanza insisted that everyone should call him “T-Bone.” The problem was, nobody thought of him as a “T-Bone,” no matter how much he kept protesting (pro-testifying?) and protesting and protesting. As much as emerging leaders might deny it, the total effect of the language they use (“emerging church,” “emergent,” “new kind of Christian,” “generous orthodoxy” [implying that other orthodoxies are not generous?], “post-_____”) implies that their opinion of themselves is that they are the wave of the future, and that the church had better adjust to their concerns or be relegated to the dustbins of irrelevance. Even though they are late-comers, they have sought the place of honor at the banquet.

No doubt many of you think I am being unfair. But ask yourself whether or not this is true, that in spite of the genuineness and humility they present in personal interaction, emerging church leaders often make outrageous claims in print, all the while taking multiple swipes at the conservative/fundamentalist wing of the church. McLaren admits this himself in chapter 0 of AGO:

Beyond all warnings, you should know that I am horribly unfair in this book, lacking all scholarly objectivity and evenhandedness. My own upbringing was way out on the end of one of the most conservative twigs of one of the most conservative branches of one of the most conservative limbs of Christianity, and I am far harder on conservative Protestant Christians who share that heritage than I am on anyone else. I’m sorry. I am consistently oversympathetic to Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, even dreaded liberals, while I keep elbowing my conservative brethren in the ribs in a most annoying–some would say ungenerous–way.

Of course, the fact that he brings this charge against himself disarms the reader and puts all of the elbowing in a lighter realm. But it doesn’t change the fact that McLaren does a lot of elbowing, and I am one of those who would say that many times it is ungenerous. It is much harder to spot because of his charming personality, his self-deprecating humor, and the obvious humility that he displays in person (from what I have heard). But it is still there, and as much as it sounds uptight of me to point it out, I think it is a warranted charge to make, and I am not the only one who has noticed.

What I am asking for here is for more, shall we say, “print humility.” This is the kind of humility that is demonstrated in published writings that are not aimed at anyone in particular. We know that the emerging church, in general, practices humility in personal interaction. I have not seen the same kind of humility in public statements that describe the emerging church and its mission. On the contrary, I have seen a young movement giving superficial attention to aspects of Christian heritage, directing a ton of criticism at its own background (Protestant evangelicalism), and proclaiming itself the new synthesis that will usher us into the future. You can have a seat at the table, but you’re not ready to run the meeting yet.


7 Responses to “An Excerpt and Some Reflections”

  1. morpheus Says:

    Another example of your not seeing the forest for the trees…

    Maybe it is just me, but it comes across as though you are saying the spirit doesn’t blow as it pleases and transformation isn’t really needed. What is the church if it is not continually reforming? If God cannot move and cause us to rethink things, then what’s the point?

    I know that is probably not what you are saying, but the vibe of this post.

    Also, what is it about “the emerging church” that scares you and why must you create this scarecrow? What “emerging church” has wronged you personally?

    I think this “print humility” you seek is present, but I am not sure you would see it…

    in love, cory

  2. Aaron Says:

    I will just answer these two questions:

    “Also, what is it about “the emerging church” that scares you and why must you create this scarecrow? What “emerging church” has wronged you personally?”

    This is not about being wronged personally. It is about my tradition, my faith being attacked in public through printed media. I have it in McLaren’s own words that this is what he has done.

    [By the way, I think it is fine to attack opposing beliefs when presenting your case for something; I do it all the time. But if it is fine to do so, then it is also fine for the ones being attacked to respond].

    But these are some of the issues that, to me, represent dangerous trends in the movement:

    (1) No clear understanding or communication of the idea of truth and whether we can actually know it. McLaren also said in his chapter 0 that he goes out of his way to be unclear; this is not a helpful way to discuss theology, a realm that has enough confusion without someone deliberately contributing to it.

    (2) Related to number 1, no clear doctrine of Scripture, which is foundational (yes, I use that word and love it) to all theology. Theological divides begin at the doctrine of Scripture. I have no idea what emerging leaders believe about the Bible.

    (3) Ambiguity on key doctrinal issues, all of which I consider important for Christian orthodoxy:
    – Is faith in Christ the only means of salvation, or can people be saved (perhaps by Christ) in their own religions? This has huge implications for missions and the theological enterprise itself.
    – What about Hell and the wrath of God? Deviation from the orthodox doctrine of Hell and wrath detracts from the seriousness of the lost condition of mankind and, therefore, from the atonement.
    – Penal substitutionary atonement. Attacks against this have come from emerging leaders in the UK.

    And, on a more practical level, there is ambiguity all over the place concerning homosexuality. Wilson points out this inconsistency in McLaren’s argument. On the one hand, McLaren writes:

    “Orthodoxy in this book is similarly caught up in the practice (orthopraxy) of love for God and all God’s creations. Such an outlandish idea, in the name of orthodoxy, is so unorthodox that it is hardly worth your continued consideration”

    But Wilson responds:

    “But speaking of orthopraxy, it should be pointed out that McLaren is actively engaged in smuggling in a new definition of what it means to “live right.” He means behaving like an amiable discussion partner, regardless of what is being discussed. But he fails to point out that the most unsettling aspects of the emergent church movement (to the orthodox) have been precisely those aspects where biblical concepts of orthopraxy are being brought into question. Case in point: homosexual behavior. Is this a question of orthodoxy or orthopraxy? But when asked about this basic question of sexual ethics (a question that the apostle Paul described as the end of the ethical road, the road of what you do, not what you think), McLaren sidesteps, and refuses to talk about . . . what? He refuses to link right thinking about God with right living. He detaches orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and he does while maintaining that he is doing just the opposite. And many other such things he does.”

    When someone gets to the point that they can no longer clearly identify homosexual behavior as sin, it indicates to me that there are a lot of other things wrong. People normally don’t get to that point unless they have gone through a number of other steps, all of them away from Christian orthodoxy. There is no ambiguity in Scripture over this matter. D.A. Carson completely destroyed McLaren’s attempt to sidestep the exegetical questions on the issue. It is not that condemning homosexuality is my hobby-horse (I rarely talk about). It is, rather, that moral ambiguity on an issue that is so unambiguous in Scripture indicates a deeper problem: a failure to believe the Word of God, at least in some respects. And it is unbelief that is at the root of all heresy.

    And that is really the main issue. Without a clear doctrine of Scripture or a clear understanding of what truth is and how we can know it, it is only a matter of time before a movement drifts off into every kind of heresy imaginable.

    So, I guess you could call this a “scarecrow” if you want, but this kind of thing has happened too many times in church history to be ignored.

  3. The Table Guy Says:


    There is so much here in your post and comment I’m not quite sure what to respond to.

    Thank you for taking the time in you comment to clarify, in specifics, some of your issues. Maybe you could take these, breaks these into brief, individual posts and invite a brief dialogue on each. Just a thought.

    I will say this. This is a new “movement.” The emerging church is not a denomination. If you were to throw every church deemed “emergant” into a pot, you would notice, as you’ve pointed out, many differences. Maybe this is because they all share something (different things) that link them, but none are linked in total by a common set of beliefs. They might share a similar epistemology, but not share a similar viewpoint on key aspects of theology, for instance.

    I know of one “emergent” type church that have had to draw a few theological sketches, but for the most part really value inclusiveness. Here’s one way this fleshes out: at one small group meeting the leader facilitates an open discussion on baptism. People were in the group who had been catholic, presbyterian, methodist, baptist, non-denom, islamic, atheists, etc. (A variety) Of course they were trying to arrive at some essentials, an using scripture (and tradition, to an extent) as a basis. But they allowed for more freedom than most churches.

    Here’s how this fleshed out: This church in particular does not normally practice infant baptism. However, one fo the members was from a tradition that does. He didn’t believe that salvation would be found in the practice, but did want his baby to participate in that tradition. So, the church let him perform an infant baptism, with his son, in worship. From their perspective, and really his, it was basically baby dedication, but their value for inclusiveness allowed it to go beyond that a bit.

    I would say that in many of these types of churches there is the value for openness. They expect it in dialogue and practice. And when that is one of the lines you draw, it affects everything else in significant ways.

  4. morpheus Says:

    Thanks, Aaron. Like Jason said, each of those is a lengthy discussion in and of itself…perhaps one we should have. I think we have been over a little of it before, but it might be helpful not just to us, but to all. Interested?

    One of the inherent difficulties we will run into, though, is that there is no uniform voice like a denomination or solid organization would have. Those in the movement have been very intentional to keep it this way. I think it is valuable that these discussions are taking place, all over the world, in a variety of churches. If nothing else, emergent (whether the movement of the organization) is creating theological discourse…and I think it is healthy.

  5. morpheus Says:

    Hey Aaron,

    I don’t know if you realized it or not, but Tony Jones was at your school. You should read his post here:

  6. Aaron Says:

    Thanks for the link to that article. I didn’t know that he had been here. Big Al doesn’t really keep me in the loop. Also, I don’t call him “Big Al” either. Actually, I have heard that he prefers “Albert,” kind of like Davy Crockett always wanting to be called “David”.

    Yeah, I’m always interested in discussion of issues like this. I’m not exactly sure what you mean, though. Do you want me to start it off with a post, or have I already done that, or do you want to start it off with a post, or do you want to flip a coin, or do you want to let Jason do it anonymously on Robert’s blog, or what? Also, we’re leaving Sunday; ergo, I won’t be doing much interneting until we get around the 28th or 29th.

    I think it would help me to hear an emerging perspective on some of the issues I have raised. I know that I probably can’t ask for THE emerging perspective, since there probably isn’t one, but I’m sure there are common threads among all emerging perspectives. That’s probably what makes them “emerging” in the first place. So, I think greater clarity for people like me is needed in order to help people like me decide where we have been unfair, where we need to slack off on our criticisms, and also where we need to put the pedal to the floor of the orthodoxy attack machine.

  7. Call Me Ishmael Says:

    I have tried to summarize McLaren’s book at:

    I trust it is not a total failure.

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