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A Neo-Reformed Review of Prodigal Christianity

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[Review of David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier. Available on Amazon now.]

Since September 11th, 2001, the Emergent Church and the Neo-Reformed resurgence have come to dominate the theological discourse in the Evangelicalism of North American Christianity. These opposing movements could be characterized as reactions or responses to the problems of traditional and attractional models of church that have done nothing to prevent the decline of the church in a postmodern world. Along with and in large part because of the growth of the internet, these two Evangelical movements have grown rapidly and begun to replace the mainline denominations and seeker churches of the previous decades. David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, both professors at Northern Seminary and pastors together in the northern suburbs of Chicago at Life on the Vine Christian Community, have been in the middle of the conversation between these two movements for over a decade.

While I have never met Fitch and Holsclaw, several of my fellow seminary students and conversation partners during my studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School were involved in the ministry at Life on the Vine. Just prior to the formation of The Gospel Coalition (TGC) in 2007, the Emergent (E) discussion was already in full swing, and those of us who were headed for what has now been labeled the Neo-Reformed (NR) resurgence (also “New Calvinism” or “the Young, Restless, and Reformed”) were eager to debate where the church was heading with our Emergent leaning classmates. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were all wrestling with our own spiritual formation growing up in the church and the dramatic cultural shift that had been taking place and that was accelerated by 9/11.

Since my time at Trinity, the heated debate between Emergents and the Neo-Reformed has died down, though not without an occasional flare up over Rob Bell (E) or Mark Driscoll (NR). This is due in large part to the fact that the Emergent church has largely fizzled out or become, as the authors put it, “another version of mainline Christianity” (xxiii). Since my time at Trinity, I have tried to keep up with some of my former classmates who formerly identified with the Emergent discussion but have shifted toward a Neo-Anabaptist theology (the authors prefer “radical evangelical” (RE) or “evangelical Anabaptist”). Recently in a blog post over at TGC, I encouraged those who have, like me, found a theological home in the Reformed tradition to continue reforming by listening to our brothers in the Neo-Anabaptist movement. This review is a further effort to encourage both camps to engage one another in fruitful theological dialogue. Therefore, I will be avoiding the books interaction with E and focus on its engagement with NR.

Purpose and Message
Prodigal Christianity proposes an alternative way of being Christian than the visions offered by the Neo-Reformed and Emergent camps. However, “the book does not seek to be a compromise middle ground between these two camps; it proposes a way beyond them that learns from both but defies the categories of each” (xvi). Borrowing from Karl Barth’s interpretation of Luke 15:11-32, Fitch and Holsclaw envision churches in mission that embrace and imitate the radical journey of the Son of God into our fallen world. They do this not by providing a step-by-step process but by attempting to shape what we are able to imagine regarding the way God is working in the world through ten signposts pointing us forward.

The authors begin the book with a brief history of the liberal-conservative controversies that shaped the past century and then offer a brief evaluation of the Emergent and Neo-Reformed. Regarding the first group, the authors say, “Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, and others have helped us ask really important questions and contributed greatly to creating a generous and compassionate Christianity,…but their answers have often lacked the substance on which we could live” (xxiii). Regarding the latter group, “The Neo-Reformed have invigorated theological discussion and offered serious reflection on the mission we all face in North America,…but to us, they appear to be defensive. At times, they seem to revert to doctrinal entrenchment and the attractional habits of the churches from which we had come” (xxiii). On that point, they lament how the term missional has been stolen by the very churches and models of ministry that the term was coined to challenge (xxiii).

The argument throughout the book seeks to show that the two camps both fail to transcend the liberal-conservative controversies and the cultural context these arguments assume (xxiv). Therefore, the authors make a case for prodigal Christianity, a way of being disciples together determined by the extravagant, radical, and gracious Triune God. Only when we embrace the radical and scandalous love of the Father who sent his own Son into the “far country” of sin and death in the power of the Holy Spirit will we be capable of bearing witness where no cultural Christian consensus exists (xxv-xxvi).

The bulk of the book is made up of ten chapters, one for each signpost. In each chapter, we are presented with broad observations about how both the Emergents and Neo-Reformed movements have responded to or understood the topic of the chapter and then given a radical-evangelical alternative. There is both appreciation for what each camps gets right and concern over perceived shortcomings. I think the authors are very charitable in their interaction with both camps. As long as readers remember that they are painting with a broad brush, it will be difficult to argue that they have missed the general trend of each movement on the various topics.

Helpful Challenges to the Neo-Reformed
It seems to me that the underlying critique of the NR throughout the book is aimed at two problems that distort our ability to be faithful in mission. The first concern suggests that we have reduced the gospel to individual salvation through the forgiveness of sins (85-86). It is important to note that the authors make it very clear that they are not denying that the gospel is about individual forgiveness in any way: “Today this great truth is as true as ever before” (86). But they believe that the personal plan of salvation needs to be linked to the robust and communal story of salvation: “Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is Lord” (84). The cross and the kingdom, atonement and the victory of Jesus, need a stronger connection than what is normal among us NR.

The reduction of the gospel impacts our understanding of witness and ecclesiology. Because the gospel is merely about personal forgiveness, witness becomes the same as evangelism rather than encompassing proclamation and demonstration of the kingdom in the life of the church (51, 58-60). They give numerous examples of NR leaders who seem to think that merely stating the Christian position on an issue is the same as witnessing faithfully to the world. They argue that witness “happens socially as reconciliation, righteousness, and new creation taking place horizontally (in lived relationships) and vertically (with God). We cannot reduce witness to mere proclamation” (62). How can it be that so many NR churches seem to be little more than preaching centers much like the attractional churches so many of us NR sought to leave behind (99)? I have to admit that these concerns are concerns I have had with our tribe for some time. The celebrity pastor, the multi-site church, and the mega-church are all phenomena that simply do not comport with a robust Reformed understanding of the gospel (which is not merely about personal forgiveness), church, and witness. So I embrace this critique, but I don’t think this problem is related to our theological convictions so much as our failure to apply them properly.

The second major concern that runs throughout the book suggests that the NR are stuck in Christendom and the mindset of cultural dominance. This is most clearly manifested in the defensive, insecure, and smug proclamations made from a distance regarding various issues or leaders. One example of this comes in the chapter on the journey into sexual redemption where the authors assess one NR leader’s engagement with homosexuality:

He outlines his biblical position…yet what has he accomplished? Perhaps he has made those who already agree with him feel better about their own positions. But has he entered into the world of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender/queer (LGBTQ)?…He approaches the question from a culture war point of view. He acts as if the church is still in charge of the culture when plainly we are not. He acts as if expert analysis of the Bible can help win the church’s war with culture…He is not a missionary: he has not crossed the boundaries into the very lives of LGTBQ people…Information might win an argument, but it seldom draws a person into the kingdom all on its own. (121)

In short, our engagement with the world confuses proclamations from a distance with faithful witness. They observe in us a Christendom mindset that fails to account for the cultural shift and that inappropriately embraces (desires, seeks, and clings to) the powers and privileges of this world. Here, I think, is perhaps the biggest problem we have in the NR camp, and it’s possible that our failure to address this latent Constantinianism is responsible for our failure to escape the problems of wider evangelical culture.

Concerns and Areas for Further Discussion
Prodigal Christianity has many helpful challenges that we need to consider, but the longstanding differences between Anabaptists and the Reformed seem to show up in a number of places that leave me with some concerns and some possible challenges for the authors.

In the chapter on Scripture, I found myself fluctuating between agreement and concern with the direction the authors were heading. I think those in NR camp who have read thoroughly on the issue of inerrancy and hold to a critical rather than naïve view will appreciate the affirmation and the nuance the authors give to the subject. For instance, Fitch writes about his affirmation of inerrancy, “So I believe the Bible is without error, but I need more than that” (70). The authors note that inerrantists have often tried to defend the bible using science and historiography such that “we inadvertently end up basing the authority of Scripture on an authority outside of (extrinsic to) scripture” (70).

But after the authors affirm that “Scripture is a dramatic unfolding of the story of God’s redemptive work in and for the world” (69), the bulk of the chapter argues that the NR have wrongly sought to control the text rather than proclaim it (72-74). While this isn’t a completely unfounded charge and while we do need to avoid trying to master the text instead of letting it master us, some of the practices the authors provide as signposts toward a more faithful reading of Scripture seem problematic to me. It is true that we must “come to embrace the Bible as our own story, as the story of the kingdom” (80) and “approach Scripture first not to analyze it or subject it to study as an object” (80), but what the authors share about how this plays out in their own congregation doesn’t go far enough. The example the authors share involves discerning what position the church should take regarding the leadership of women, and instead of declaring the church’s view from a position of pastoral authority, they held open discussions accompanied with prayer to practice mutual submission to one another and to discern together what God was commanding them to do (81). While this approach seeks to avoid the dangers of power and control that silence opposition, and while it hopes to truly listen to God through the work of the Spirit among the congregation, I wonder if this has a hidden power dynamic to it as well. Could this potentially silence the voices of Christians elsewhere and at different times in the church’s history because those who want to bring that testimony to bear on the local decision are considered too dogmatic? While it is good and right for pastors to be open to being challenged before the congregation, I wonder if this approach undercuts one of the roles pastors have to protect the sheep from false teaching that can destroy kingdom faithfulness.

Perhaps the underlying concern I had with the book that is most like responsible for other reservation were the subtle statements that showed up several times along the lines that “God comes not to destroy or even impose his will on us” (39). This by itself is not problematic when referring to the incarnation (to which the above quote does), but other statements along these lines suggest that the authors believe that God’s posture to the world is always an embrace and never one of judgment. This comes out strongly in the chapter on the gospel where the authors describe different ways of proclaiming the gospel, most of which speak of Jesus’ salvation as something already true of each person but not yet entered into by everyone (92-95). For example: “We must therefore proclaim into people’s lives…that God is at work reconciling all relationships, including our relationships, in Jesus Christ” (93), “this person needs to hear that Jesus has saved and is saving him or her from (drowning in) sin” (88). I may be mistaken here, or the authors may need to be more clear, but it sounds like Fitch and Holsclaw have a Barthian view of Jesus’ saving work. It seems like they believe that the world, in its entirety with each and every person included, has already been reconciled in Christ and that the church is the community that recognizes that reconciliation, lives in it, and invites others to live in it. In other words, everyone has Jesus, but only the church is living in the reality. Furthermore, it suggests that God has already judged all sin on the cross. So I wonder if the authors believe that Jesus will come again to destroy and impose his righteous will on the world. Perhaps this could be clarified or further explored by the authors.

Recommendation
Overall, I found the book helpful and challenging but ultimately something I cannot wholeheartedly embrace. The Anabaptist theology that permeates the approach to Scripture, the gospel, the kingdom, the church, and so forth can only go so far for those of us convinced that Reformed theology best reflects the Bible’s teachings on these matters. Furthermore, there does seem to be a number of Barthian critiques present in the book that the Reformed camp has long listened to, received in part, and then ultimately rejected.

I do recommend the book, however, to those in the NR camp who are able to read charitably and receive humbly those insights that our brothers and sisters in the RE camp are noticing about our disposition, tone, and approach to mission in the world today. While we might not embrace every signpost, we can certainly appreciate the Trinitarian theology of mission, the invitation to embrace and imitate the incarnation, the advice on how we need to understand our witness more broadly, and the challenge to our church structures, leadership, fellowship, and practices.

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