Why Saying “Emergent is the New Protestant Mainline” Is Really No Big Deal: Labeling is Good For Theological Discourse by David Fitch

imagesOur new book, Prodigal Christianity, has been accused of “labeling.” When we did this video, our friend Tony Jones didn’t appreciate the labeling going on in it. In a paragraph in Prodigal Christianity we referred to Emergent as bearing theological resemblance to protestant mainline Christianity. Tony objected. Doug Pagitt, another friend didn’t get why we would put him in under that label (on his radio show). At the core of these rumblings were two objections:

  1. Labeling is a bad thing. It’s not right to pigeonhole people. Just have conversations.
  2. You got the label wrong, we’re not protestant mainliners.

This is important stuff. For one, I want to be cautious about labeling. I think there can be an inherent violence in labeling. I get that critique. So let me respond to these two objections.

Regarding objection 1.), it seems to me, a conversation is only possible if we can clarify histories, understand trajectories, get to the pluses and minuses within various histories of how Christian life has been worked out over long periods of time. Otherwise, we are making everything up as we go. Not only is “making everything up as we go” impossible. It is inefficient and such a posture (of devaluing histories) inhibits progress within traditions and dialogue between traditions. If we do not understand from whence we come, our influences and the premises guiding our contextualizations, we cannot have true dialogue. We never grow. The church never progresses into new contexts. There is something terribly un-progressive about rejecting all “labeling.” Would you agree?

Prodigal Christianity is literally about the journey of Geoff Holsclaw and myself went through via the trajectories of Emergent and Neo Reformed to arrive at a contextually engaged incarnational Christianity that has affinities with the Anabaptist history (and holiness evangelcial history) of protestant theology. We are incredibly appreciative of all we learned from these two groups – Emergent and Neo-Reformed. Reciting our history with them and its markers is integral to the dialectic within the book. As a result, we think labeling, carefully and generously done, is an exercise in furthering the conversation. It’s theological therapy.

Regarding objection 2.), Doug and Tony ask why we might label them protestant mainline (in a paragraph on page xxiii in the intro of Prodigal Christianity)?  Tony seems upset that we did so.  Does Tony have something against mainline Protestantism? Much much good has come and is coming from this part of American Protestantism. Doug on his radio show seems genuinely curious. On Doug’s radio show I tried to unpeel some of the layers behind what might distinguish someone as mainline protestant, but there wasn’t enough time. Basically there are categories related to the Trinity, Christology, the soteriological and cosmological status of God’s work in Christ through the cross and the resurrection, epistemology and the church;’s relation to culture, and, not least, eschatology that define (for most) the history of historic mainline protestant Christianity. Looking at their theological positions as articulated over the last 10-15 years, especially when we were reading/listening to them more carefully, I still think theologically they both lie comfortably in this camp. Tony probably less so than Doug. But I am open to revision. I could be all wrong! I know that Tony has in many ways differentiated himself over against mainline protestant theological positions. And so I’m up for revision and repentance as we dialogue. Only clarity can come forth from such discussions right? Only further progress can result as we discern the issues of our day.

Recently Tim Keller labeled me a Neo-Anabaptist in his book Center Church. I didn’t approve of the whole characterization of my position but I thought his work was an excellent example of the kind of exercise I am talking about. He carefully outlined the various historical positions on various subjects carefully parsing the strengths and what he saw as the weaknesses or the lacks. It was excellent work. In the past two years, many people have been sorting out the historical theology of the Neo-Reformed movement. Should it be called Reformed at all? The Dutch Kuyperians object to that. Maybe Neo-Puritian is a better label? We are all in the midst of sorting out our theologies. Prodigal Christianity sorts out the Emergent and Neo-Reformed positions and what we have learned and appreciated from them both through these past 10 to 15 years. We then talk about the lacks as we have experienced them. This is all good discussion. And then we propose a way forward via an incarnational contextual theology that draws much from Anabaptist writings (with holiness influence) yet maintains the best of evangelical life. This seems to me the way you are supposed to do theology? Wouldn’t everybody agree?

In the past ten years, I have been characterized as a protestant liberal by evangelicals and I have been characterized as an evangelical fundamentalist by protestant mainliners and even some Emergent types. I’ve learned not to get upset with that. What’s the big deal? Each time I try to count it as an opportunity to clarify who I am, where I come from, how best to understand where I am going. To me, these are the kind of theological discussions that clarify and we need more of.  Many times, the past ten years, all we’ve done is accuse one another of this or that (and I’ve probably been in the middle of some of it). We have not thought through our categories, the strengths and weaknesses within out theological trajectories. So I am eager for more discussion to take place, and I am eager to be wrong about any characterizations we’ve made in the book Prodigal Christianity in regard to both Emergent Christianity and Neo-Reformed. Let each side join the conversation for the furtherance of the Kingdom together!!

More and more (especially after the Missio Alliance Conference this past month)  I believe the American church is at a key juncture. And for those of us who are evangelicals (if your head is not buried in some sand pit somewhere) we’re recognizing we are at the perilous point. We must carefully discern the issues theologically, contextually for where the church must go in regard to the huge cultural and missiological issues we face in N America. This will take going beyond the antagonisms and defining ourselves over against other people. This will take some theological “parsing,” the kind of labeling that, when done generously and humbly, reveals our lacks and out of these realizations we can work for the furtherance of the Kingdom.  When we hear from others we got it wrong, we should repent, correct, and nuance. Each time we do, we grow further into the where the Holy Spirit is taking us in Christ.  What say you? Do you agree?

After reading Prodigal Christianity, Nazarene pastor and professor Tim Stidham said on Facebook: “You have helped me by finding a way to positively quote McLaren, Piper, NT Wright, and Bell in the same book!” Hopefully this is a sign that we did this kind of “parsing/labeling” well .  What say you? Is labeling always bad? Always wrong? Have you seen the benefits of drawing out histories? Have you seen how labeling our trajectories helps us to understand one another and bring our particular stances to the discernments necessary for the furtherance of the Kingdom? Or am I just justifying my bad manners? 🙂

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