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The “Emerging” View of Scripture: Pete Rollins and the Danger of DeIncarnationalizing the Word

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As I said last post, I’m currently winding down my book project  The End of Evangelicalism? by writing an epilogue probing the possibility what a new faithfulness might look like to emerge “from the rubble” of evangelicalism. I applaud the emerging and/or missional church movements among others. But they must avoid three dangers, three traps if they (we) are to elude the traps that evangelicalism has itself already fallen into.  That’s when I came up with these three clumsy terms, de incarnationalize, de-eschatologize and de-ecclesiologize. Here’s some of what I wrote (edited for a blog post with citations etc. deleted) on the first of these 3 traps using Peter Rollins to illustrate what such a danger might look like.

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Emerging church writers have spilt a lot of ink criticizing evangelicalism’s modernist assumptions on Scripture. They have rightly showed the problems inherent to evangelicalism’s excessive propositionalism, hubris in interpretative method (that there is one true interpretation tied to the author’s original intent) and its resulting exclusionary arrogance. Irish philosopher Peter Rollins, a former evangelical Pentecostal, addressed these issues on behalf of the emerging church with his books How (Not) To Speak About God and his follow-up book The Fidelity of Betrayal. His deconstructive approach is popular among the emerging church leaders in N. America.

According to Rollins, the established church, which often means evangelicalism, is too certain about what we know about God and too hyper-cognitive towards Scripture thereby taking the mystery out of our encounter with the living God. We evangelicals, so Rollins suggest, tend to colonize the text, make Scripture our own possession and in effect make the words of Scripture an idolatry. As a result, we have become a controlling, uninviting, judgmental people losing the wherewithal to encounter the living God and inviting others into such an encounter. We know Scripture but we are untouched by it and so we are insulated from God who seeks to reveal Himself in and through it. In short Rollins agrees with everything I have written in my upcoming book The End of Evangelicalism? concerning the evangelical practice of “the Inerrant Bible.” Rollins solution is to move us from “right believing” to “believing in the right way.”

To get us to the right way, Rollins’ provides a diet of pre-Medieval mystics, apophatic theology and some post-structuralist ideas found from the likes of Derrida, Jean Luc Marion and John Caputo. True to his apophatic leanings, Rollins says we must approach revelation with a sense that there is always more of God concealed than is revealed. God can never be fully revealed in words, even the words of Scripture. We therefore always fall short of knowing what we mean by God. The evangelical tendency to concentrate on the known content of Scripture, therefore, misses the point. God is made known in the unknown. We must approach all revelation with a humility and openness appropriate to this reality. In true deconstructionist terms, we must acknowledge “that our various interpretations of revelation will always be provisional, fragile and fragmentary.” Context, culture and language both limit the extent of our understanding of God as well as make it possible. Truth is not so much then about what we can conceptually grasp. It is about the living encounter with God that transforms our selves as a result what Rollins labels a “soteriological event.”

To those of us who have suffered with the modernist habits of the evangelical practice of Scripture, Rollins comes as a breath of fresh air. He helps shape in us a humility towards Scripture that can breed the hospitality and conversation we need for a politic of Mission.

Rollins’ proposal, however, poses a danger. His version of truth risks that the gospel never hits the ground sufficiently to shape a political reality. He certainly intends to foster the incarnation of the gospel in people’s lives. This is a big theme among emerging leaders. Nonetheless, it is questionable whether he has provided for a confidence in what God has revealed sufficient enough to order a politic of truth, justice and reconciliation in the world. He is apophatic after all in his approach to religious language (God can never be contained in language). He is serious about all interpretations of revelation being provisional. As a result, we could end up ever and always postponing judgment as to what God is saying so that indeed we never test it, engage it and allow it to shape our lives together as a people in everyday life. Because God is revealed in what we cannot know, we may get lost in contemplation and/or conversation that never provides the determinacy to actually participate in the Mission God in concrete ways as a people.

This is what I call the danger of de-incarnationizing the Word of God. It is the same critique of deconstructionism that has been voiced by Milbank, Zizek, and others. They suggest that deconstruction glorifies “the never to be reached” and sucks us in to a ‘bad infinity.’ Our life together begins to look like a “pseudo activism indistinguishable from a Bhuddist quietism.” None of this may be true of Rollins but it is the danger that lies close at hand: the danger of a concept of truth that by definition never lands in the concrete circumstances of our every life together.

To be more precise, to de-incarnationalize the Scriptures is to separate them from their source in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son – to remove the language of Scriptures from the logic of incarnation. God has condescended to reveal Himself in Christ via human culture including the language of Scripture itself. God was born in human flesh and lived among us speaking our language. He died, rose and ascended gifting the church with apostles, teachers and the ongoing proclamation of the Word all by the purview of the Holy Spirit. In that His Holy Spirit is among us, His presence continues and inhabits the ongoing language of His people. As we situate ourselves in this language, we are able to encounter God in it and discern Him elsewhere. The Scriptures are the very extension of the incarnate Christ through the Holy Spirit into the world via the preaching, Table and community of His people. In such a place, we are able to discern justice, righteousness, reconciliation and the ways of God in our lives together for the world. This does not deny that the language of His people always points beyond itself to the fuller reality which it cannot contain. This too is part of the incarnation (This is from Jamie Smiths Speech and Theology). And we must always approach the Scriptures with humility and submission in all the ways it is practiced. Yet the Word has condescended into our lives, and God continues that enfleshment in His people. We can discern the truth in the Spirit via the Scriptures, actual truths, what we must do,  concretely for our lives together in the world. To separate the Scriptures from their incarnate continuity with the Son is to render them impotent to shape us politically as the reconciliation of God at work in the world. We are in danger of receiving a Truth that can never land in the social realities of our every day lives.

That Rollins is at least vulnerable to this trap is evident in some of the liturgical services of his Ikon community as outlined in the 2nd half of How (Not) to Speak of God.  These well-crafted performances are meant to be “soteriological events.” They invite the participant to engage in Scriptural stories in ways that deconstruct the most commonly held interpretations of Scripture. Their operating mode is to turn the received interpretation ‘on its head’ so as to clear some space for a fresh encounter once it has been determined “what God is Not.” The events are inventive and engaging to say the least. There is no doubt they provoke an encounter with God. Yet these liturgies can have the affect of deconstructing the participant pulling him/her apart from our history in Christ. Yet the very purpose and profundity of Christian liturgy, as I understand it, is the opposite: to draw us into the very participation into our history of God in Christ. These Ikon services can have the affect of removing the participants from the very context or language that we need to locate ourselves within the Story. The modus operandi here illustrates some of what happens in the de-incarnationalization of the Word. In an effort to avoid the ‘creedalizing’ of doctrine, we are left devoid of (disconnected from) the history of what God has done, and is doing whereby we can see God in the world and participate in Mission. As a result, these “Ikon services” can come off almost as performance art. They can leave the participant with no place to go and no context from which to move into the world to locate God’s Mission. If this indeed happens, these are not liturgies that can incarnate a people into a life together in Christ for His Mission in the world.

The emerging church therefore has much to offer post-evangelicalism in the forging of new faithfulness for Mission. If there is to be such a politic in our future however, we must avoid the de-incarnationalizing of our belief and practice of Scripture.

What do you think? Does Pete Rollins commit the error of de-incarnationalizing the Word? rendering the Scripture impotent for shaping a politial presense in the world?

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