Theological Issues Confronting the Emerging Churches – Yet Another List

We’ve had Gibbs/Bolger list the nine core practices of the emerging church, we’ve had Scot McKnight list the seven habits of successful emerging conversations, and “Emergent” itself list its “four values and practices that flow from them.” Dare I propose another list? Hesitantly, but here I go. What are the key theological issues posed by the current culture of postmodern, post Christian, post-Western Enlightenment culture to the emerging churches seeking to be missional in these contexts? Here’s what I think they are. I mention only a very few names of thinkers (just a few) who might help.
One … THE AUTHORITY, INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE, AND COMMUNITY. Inerrancy, propositions, and the perspicuity of the text are inadequate to the task of describing the authority/interpretation of Scripture under the critique of modernity. In fact, these terms actually now demean Scripture’s authority. As a result, N. American society still can’t see the power of the Story we pass on in our history. Look anew at apostolicity, the church Community’s (big c) canon of interpretation, Story, Narrative and the performance of Scripture as ways to go forward. Van Hoozer, John Francke, NT Wright (and others) are well on their way to helping us in this area.

Two … SALVATION, SANCTICATION AND THE ATONEMENT. Substitutionary atonement, the separation of justification from sanctification in the ordo salutis (the order of salvation) by us evangelicals have provided the means for the over individualized, consumerized, exchange-based mode of salvation so prevalent in the N. American evangelical church. In fact, these notions have been abused to demean and cheapen the cosmic supreme nature of the salvation offered in Christ for the world. As a result, American society can only see our salvation in narcissistic terms. These notions once abused have made the atonement appear as a violent act in itself and exclusionary. Look anew at recapitulation theories of the atonement in Scripture, the categories of character and virtue, and “the new perspective on Paul,” to restore the unity of the ordo and the hospitality of God in the cross. Scott McKnight, Hans Boersma, NT Wright, James Dunn and others can help here.

Three … JUSTICE AND THE CHURCH. Over Lutheranized accounts of Pauline justification (mentioned above), the separation of individual from social political salvation, have made possible the making of justice as a duty of the evangelical Christian instead of the very character of who we are. As a result, American society continues to think we’re trying to win a culture battle instead of working for the redemption of all creation. We continue old habits of treating issues of racism, economics, gender, sexuality, etc. as if they were problems of individuals only, or as capable of being solved by “individualist” solutions of a better capitalism or democracy. Look anew at Yoder’s “the politics of Jesus,” and “the new perspective on Paul,” and to Cornel West, Luce Iragary, Bell Hooks, William Cavanagh, Dan Bell, Steve Long and yes Stanley Hauerwas and many more to help us here.

Four… PLURALISM AND CHRISTIANITY “Jesus is the Only Way.” But how do we communicate what it means to say “Jesus is Lord” to a Buddhist? Exclusivist, Inclusivist, John Hick’s “Christian pluralism” are simply inadequate to understand witness, dialogue and the supremacy of Christ in the world of new pluralism. Look anew at post Wittgensteinian theorists as well as the doctrine of the “sovereignty of God” to help us. For me the old ecumenicist George Lindbeck, as well as Stanley Hauerwas help us to know how to speak about these orthodox doctrines and practices in these new worlds. They help do what we must do faithfully yet carefully. It is one of the central issues of our day. In Wittgenstein’s phrase, these figures help us learn how to “go on” in a world stalemated by pluralism.

Five … ECCLESIOLOGY. In a fragmented world where individualist foundations to epistemology are disavowed, everyone, including Christians, must have a social space, a language and a politic in order to be shaped sufficiently to live coherent lives. For Christians who live at the end of modernity, we simply cannot do without the church. Evangelical hyper- individualism made the church expendable. For we who now live in these postmodern worlds, we must re articulate and re invigorate what it means to be the church. Look to missional church thinkers, Van Gelder, Hunsberger, Guder, as well as Hauerwas, Lindbeck and new people writing on the church.

These questions have all been asked by at least Brian McLaren in his writings as well as other writers within Emergent and Emerging churches. These same questions were posed earlier at the forming of evangelicalism in the 20’s. The answers of that time articulated in reaction to modernist protestant liberalism yield the modernist answers: 1.) inerrancy, 2.) substitionary atonement, 3.) dispensational pessimism towards social structures, 4.) Exclusivism and 5.) no ecclesiology. We must do the theological work here to go forward for those who wish to lead the church amidst the cultural malaise of post-Christian post-modernity.

My challenge to emerging churches is – Let us not engage these issues by not simply reacting to old line evangelicalism and then turning to the classic protestant liberal answers. Frankly these answers are well worn and proven wanting. Let us seriously think through what postmodernity as well as the post liberal, post secular theologies are telling us about the old modern consensus. It goes without saying; we ground all of our theological engagements in the Scriptures and the history of the interpretation of our Scriptures in the church. But let us not default to more modernist, more individualist, more self-expressive, more problematic and just as naive extensions of the former engagements. I hope to explain more as I blog on these subjects in the weeks to come.

These are the theological issues I think we must engage in post-modern contexts. If anyone is out there … What are yours? What numerous other authors have helped you the most in these questions?


PS Thanks to Jonathon Wilson on his review of The Great Giveaway in Christianity Today. For those interested, I think I already answered his oft stated objection to the book’s approach in a previous post here … at the Great Giveaway blog.

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