By R. Scott Smith and Jana Harmon

The emerging church has become a major topic of conversation amongst Christians, and not just amongst those who would consider themselves part of that “conversation.” Many evangelical of the emerging church or of leading author Brian McLaren, but often do not know just what it is. One key aspect of the emerging church is that it is a “conversation” about what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus in changing times, specifically from the modern period into a more postmodern one.1

It is helpful to recognize a distinction between “Emergent” and the “emerging church” or “emerging Christians.” Scot McKnight portrays Emergent as “an official organization in the U.S. and the U.K…. While Emergent is the intellectual and philosophical network of the emerging movement, it is a mistake to narrow all of emerging into Emergent Village.”2 Yet, Mark Driscoll defines the emerging church as a broad umbrella term for a wide range of churches that are engaged in “a missiological conversation about what a faithful church should believe and do to reach Western culture.”3

Furthermore, McKnight’s three categories of emerging Christians proves helpful.4 First, there are those ministering to postmoderns, to rescue them from relativism. Second, there are others who minister with postmoderns, accepting postmodernity as the reality of present-day life “into which we are called to proclaim and live out the gospel.”5 According to him, “the vast majority of emerging Christians and churches” fit into these two categories; “they don’t deny truth, they don’t deny that Jesus Christ is truth, and they don’t deny that the Bible is truth.”6 But, the third category is the one in which Christians “minister as postmoderns. They embrace the idea that we cannot know absolute truth, or, at least, that we cannot know truth absolutely”7 and they speak of the “importance of social location in shaping one’s view of truth.”8

Here our concern is not with McKnight’s first two categories. Rather, we will examine those leaders who minister as postmoderns, who have accepted certain core postmodern philosophical positions, and who seem open to reconsider key Christian doctrines. They often attract the most attention since they are the ones writing and speaking the most on these topics and can exert a significant influence on others involved in all three categories. So, we will use the term “emergent,” not because it is a perfect fit for everyone who is part of that group, but because many such leaders and advocates (e.g., Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, etc.) are part of Emergent.

In particular, we will look at one core philosophical position of the “emergent” view, assess its implications for Christian doctrine, and conclude with practical applications as it affects our churches.

The Core Philosophical View: “Everything is Interpretation”

In my earlier writings, including the Christianity and the Postmodern Turn and Truth books, I (Scott) understood Christians who embrace more postmodern philosophical views as advocating that we are somehow “inside” language and cannot escape those limitations to know reality as it is. James K.A. Smith (or Jamie), however, replied in the Postmodern Turn and clarified that I understood them to mean that we are somehow “imprisoned in language— that there is a world ‘out there,’ but it is like a nominal realm we can never reach, because we are confined by the strictures of language that come ‘between’ us and the world.”9 On that interpretation, I concluded that we have to “construct” the world according to our use of our community’s language. But, he argues that my criticisms are misguided because I have a “restrictive understanding of language,”10 like a “kind of stilted Kantianism.”11

Instead, Jamie argues that language is part of the world, just as we, the language users, are. The world we inhabit is “always already interpreted within a framework of signs or a semiotic system.”12 Thus, interpretation is inevitable, even to experience reality, but that does not mean it is something we must overcome. Modern views promoted the belief that we can (and should) transcend our particularity, our bodies and our finitude in order to gain a pure, immediate gaze into reality itself, from a God’s-eye viewpoint. But these views are mistaken, he suggests. By trying to escape from the “prison” of our bodies, we betray the fact that we are created, embodied beings. As creatures, our finitude is one aspect of God’s good, creative work, and even in eternity, we still will be finite and embodied.13

Jamie also rejects the view that reality can be immediately and directly present before us in conscious awareness. We are finite, embodied, and historically situated creatures; thus, we cannot shed these mediating influences and somehow “arrive” directly to things in themselves (i.e., in an unmediated way).14 Language is a key mediating influence, even of our experience of things themselves. Hence, interpretation is inevitable, since all our knowledge, even experience, is mediated. Jamie further asserts that “as finite human beings we never have (nor ever will have) access to the thoughts of another as immediately present…. Instead, I always hear another or read a text from ‘where I am,’ translating the other’s discourse into where I am….To use a more popular metaphor, I always read a text or see the world through the lens of an interpretive tradition from which I cannot extricate myself for it is part of what it means to be human.”15 “Interpretation is inescapable”16 because human beings do not share identical languages, vocabularies, or thoughts.

This perspective implies that, even when we come to “clear” passages of Scripture, and “someone promises to deliver ‘the Scriptures alone,’ he or she has always already delivered an interpretation that is carried out within an interpretive tradition.”17 The New Testament books are “interpretations of a person and an event.”18 In reference to Abraham Kuyper, Jamie suggests our “interpretive glasses are ‘cemented to our face.’”19

Jamie also follows Derrida when he argues that “there is nothing outside the text,” i.e., “we can’t get beyond or behind the text to a referent (or signified) that is outside language.”20 We never get beyond interpretation to an immediate experience of things themselves. More importantly, Jamie thinks that “there is no reality that is not always interpreted through the mediating lens of language…everything is a text.”21 That is, “everything must be interpreted in order to be experienced.”22

That does not mean that for Jamie there are not real objects in a real, material reality that we all can experience. Still, those experiences have to be interpreted. Consider the “material reality” in the crucifixion. Jamie says that “not everyone sees what the centurion sees. Of course, they all see and encounter the same material realities— crosses, bodies, and eventually corpses—but these material phenomena are texts that need to be interpreted.”23 Even so, he claims that what these various people see “is not immediately clear. So the very fact that both the centurion and the chief priests are confronted by the same phenomena and yet ‘see’ something very different would seem to demonstrate Derrida’s point: the very experience of the things themselves is a matter of interpretation.”24

Nancey Murphy takes a very similar position. For her, there is a real world, but our experience of it is always theory-laden.25 For instance, in philosophy of science, there are no data that are simply given; rather, all “facts” are made “by means of their interpretation” in light of other theoretical assumptions.26 Like Jamie, we do not have direct access “into the nature of reality, putting us in a position to compare reality itself with our favored way of conceiving and talking about it.”27

McLaren, as well as Tony Jones, also have embraced this position.28 For McLaren, there is no neutral place to stand to interpret anything. As subjects, we all have limited perspectives.29 We cannot “shed” or “escape” our perspectives, backgrounds, and historically situated, conditioned experiences, for no one is purely objective or neutral.30 We also cannot know absolute, certain truths. Instead, all truth is contextual, and all meanings find their place within a story and community.31 I shared Jamie’s criticisms of my views with McLaren, to which he deeply resonated with Jamie’s view that everything is interpretation.32

Evaluation

On this view, we must keep in mind that there is a real world; no author in this discussion that we have read denies that that is so. Yet, so we are told, our access to it always is conceptualized, or interpreted; to even have an experience requires conceptualization. Clearly, there is some truth implied by this view, for what we experience in the real world needs to be conceptualized, if it is to become knowledge. Factual knowledge, or knowledge of reality, involves justified true beliefs, and beliefs involve concepts. Without concepts, we would not have such knowledge. Furthermore, we are subjects who are influenced by a number of factors, including our biases, historical location, upbringing, etc. But the key question is whether or not, nonetheless, we can know reality directly, immediately. That is the key position that these authors deny.

Suppose we look at a red delicious apple. What do we see? One thing is clear: on this view, we cannot see the apple directly, but we surely see something. Suppose, then, that we see its round shape. But, following this view consistently, we cannot see that directly. If so, then what are we seeing? If the answer is a red color, then the same reply can be made again. Suppose instead we see a stem. Still, the same problem re-presents itself, for we cannot see the stem directly. Indeed, regardless of which quality we experience, the same problem arises. Now we are in a position to see a key problem with this view: any quality (not to mention wholes – objects, persons, etc.) whatsoever we try to experience always eludes our abilities to experience and know. In the end, there is nothing left we can experience. In effect, the real world (what ever that really is) vanishes, becoming inaccessible to us altogether.

If so, how is it possible for us to begin to form concepts? Early on, I (Scott) taught my daughter several concepts, such as the concept of apples. I would show her many pictures of different kinds of apples, as well as real ones at home or the grocery store. She was able to observe these apples for what they are, and from many noticings and comparisons between what she noticed, she was able to form the concept of an apple. She could hear me utter the word “apple” as I pointed to these various examples, and learn to associate that word with the apples themselves and her concept of it. Once, there were some unusual, new kinds of apples from Australia on display, and she had no problem identifying them as apples. How? She could see the new ones for what they are, compare them with her concept of an apple, and identify these new ones as apples.

Now, how could she learn to correct her concept of an apple, if, for instance, she saw a small red ball and thought it was an apple? I could tell her that no, it is a ball, and then she could look at it, see it for what it is, and then compare what is represented in her experience with her other noticings, and even with her concept of an apple, and adjust her concept accordingly. Notice, however, that this correction would be impossible if any experience is pre-conceptualized as postmodern Emergents suggest. Even worse, how could we ever begin to form our concepts, much less correct them, if all our experiences already come conceptualized?

If the real world in effect “disappears” from us, so that we cannot experience or know it at all, then theologically we are left with a very problematic position. All doctrines, even the most central ones of Christianity, must be the result of our interpretations. That is, all our theological beliefs (that there is only one God; that He has spoken; that Jesus is God incarnate; that He arose bodily from the dead; etc.) must be our constructs, but as far as their having anything to do with reality, we could not know. Nor could we know Jesus as He is, thereby losing any hope of knowing the authentic Jesus. But if we cannot truly know Him, nor any truths about Him, then how could we become like Him? We lose any hope of being authentic Christians, which is one of the central, worthy admonitions of emerging church proponents.

But this view of knowledge is surely false, and not just for reasons we have given thus far. Consider Saul, whose conceptual scheme was that of a “Pharisee of Pharisees.” When Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus road, who, or what, did he experience? If all experience is a conceptualization, then Saul could not have experienced Jesus Himself directly, much less as Lord, as that concept was not within his conceptual scheme. But, the text indicates that Saul was instantly, radically changed from a persecutor into a Christ follower; and, the best explanation is what he claimed—that Jesus Himself appeared directly to him. This strongly suggests that our God can reveal truth directly to us.

Other scriptures confirm direct revelation, including Psalm 19:8b (the word of God enlightens the eyes), and Hebrews 4:12 (the word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, and it is able to judge all our thoughts and intentions). In 1 Samuel 16, God sends Samuel to anoint a new king to replace Saul. Seeing the eldest son, Eliab, Samuel presumes him to be God’s anointed. But the Lord intervenes and teaches Samuel a valuable lesson: “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (v. 7; NASB). Then, God reveals His anointed, David. Samuel’s conception differed from God’s; yet, God needed to clarify His choice to Samuel. But, how could Samuel know what God’s choices were in themselves if he only had personal conceptualizations of them? Moreover, if we cannot experience reality directly, despite God’s efforts, then this implies that God is limited and lacks the ability to enable us to know truth as it really is.

“But, What Does This Philosophical View Have to do With Me?”

It may be one thing to discuss the “emergent” view philosophically, but does it really have anything to do with most of us who live our daily lives as Christians, but have never been taught philosophy, much less these ideas? If this were just an academic idea that had no connection to the real world, it would not be worth our time to examine it. Unfortunately, it does have such real-world implications. For example, I (Scott) once spoke at a Biola conference about this idea at work in McLaren’s writings. Afterward, my student told me how some students from a nearby seminary remarked amongst themselves that those were just my interpretations. What was going on?

In effect, they sought to marginalize my critiques so as to not really consider them. But we all have experienced this same attitude. It is the same one we see all around us when someone remarks, “That’s just your interpretation!” It is as though that is all we are left with, without any way to make good on our claims about truth and reality; but, why? The philosophical view behind this casually used remark has filtered down into mainstream society and deeply influenced our thought.

Postmodern philosophy is forging new paths within Christianity and our understandings of faith and knowledge. Orthodox beliefs are losing their anchor within the sea of interpretation. For the Emergent Christian, knowing God in a personal, experiential way is an accessible reality. But, objectively knowing things about God is impossible because of the inescapable mediating influences of language, culture, etc. And, even with our linguistic limitations, “language fails” because “the Christian faith is mysterious to the core. It is about things and beings that ultimately can’t be put into words.”33

So, we are called to know God, but without confidence regarding the language we use to understand who He is, what He has done, and the claims He makes. According to the Emergents, not only is it impossible for us to define God in words, it is hubris to do so within our own limited and distorted human understandings. Rob Bell states, “If we do definitively put God into words, we have at that very moment made God something God is not.”34 Tony Jones asserts that any attempt to “capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry.”35 So, the very tool with which we are to seek even partial knowledge of God is inept. Humanity is limited. Language is limited. Direct reality is inaccessible. We are left impotent, not only to know about God but to know Him, because all meaningful knowledge is bound to the inadequacy of language.

What remains is agnosticism and speculation. What is encouraged is a plurality of interpretations. Bell denounces “brickianity,” a static form of faith from which removal of one brick (truth/belief) of Christianity can cause the entire wall to fall down. Instead, he advises us to let go of our ill-perceived foundation and adapt more flexible beliefs much like dynamic springs on a trampoline which bend and adjust, giving freedom to the jumper to doubt and explore.36 In the emergent perspective, questioning is a “trait of integrity,” not “an act of defiance,” per Jones.37 Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, has forsaken knowledge altogether as critical in his postmodern Christian faith. He states, “I don’t believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons. Who knows anything anyway?”38 The accepted postmodern ethos appears to be “it’s really cool to search for God. It’s not very cool to find Him,” according to non-emergent author Kevin DeYoung.39

After all, Bell proclaims, “The mystery is the truth.”40 Mystery is the only apt description for something or someone we cannot aptly conceptualize, much less talk about. Searching for truth is valued, but finding truth arrogantly infers “how wrong everybody else is”;41 the perpetual conversational journey is valued over finding the destination. Theology becomes, according to Jones, subjective, local, nonpropositional, conversational, and temporary.42 The adventurous “thrill of interpretation,” mystery and complexity overtake the authoritative, universal, timeless truths of God.43 Bell asserts that we need to continually reform basic theological beliefs, to assent to Jesus’ permission to grant “new interpretations” of the “open-ended” Bible. He encourages us to take up our responsibility to continually bind and loose scriptural

meanings, interpreting the metaphor of Scripture as it seems good to us and to the Holy Spirit in the way of Acts 15.44 McLaren, for example, has risen above the “old (interpretative) narrative” to a “different view of the landscape,” and surmises that “the entire Christian theology has shifted” regarding the nature of sin—that the problem lies not with separation from an angry God, but with its destruction of human relationships.45

The Bible then becomes, rather than is, the word of God through the expression of communal beliefs and values.46 It becomes one of many voices of authority within the discourse of beliefs. As DeYoung assesses, “We end up with functional authority for the Bible that is dependent upon the community rather than intrinsic authority that is based on God having spoken.”47 The community becomes the authority. We are left only with our own experiences to interpret what we believe to be real or true. We dialogue with others to gain insight into things which are beyond our reach. We are left with no access to reality as it truly is, and no access to confident understanding of ourselves and the world, much less of God. We become like those who are “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7, NIV).

If we base our faith on our own limited interpretations without access to reality, we are at risk of unrestrained doubt, skepticism and despair when knowledge of God is not secured. Interviewing McLaren, a young man transparently revealed his emotional angst regarding the instability of his postmodern brand of faith:

I am just really struggling trusting even God exists at all. And I can’t mental talk myself into that…I think part of it is I’m scared – Things have changed so many times, I’m scared that if I start saying I believe certain things and trusting and standing on things, I’m going to be humbled again and let down and disappointed…Do you have any other advice for those of us in that place of how to rebuild a really basic trust again?48

But, God has not left us in this precarious state. To live is to know. It is to constantly bump into reality, His reality. It is to constantly make decisions as to what we believe to be real and true. God, the source of all knowledge, has clearly revealed Himself through His word, world, and Spirit. God was not guilty of “linguistic idolatry” when He revealed Himself through Scripture that we may know Him personally and understand things about Him that are real and true. The early church was not guilty of artificially containing God through their early creeds, but was faithful to assert the reality of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. Through the centuries, Christians believed the Bible to be God’s authoritative, inspired, true words spoken for our understanding and obedience.

God is mysterious, but He is not fully mystery. He has made Himself known through the indwelling guidance of His Spirit. To underestimate the instruction of the Holy Spirit in our knowledge of God, even in the name of humility, is “an assault on the Holy Spirit and (is) disbelief in God’s ability to communicate rational, clear statements about Himself in human language.”49Scripture presumes humanity’s ability to know assertions about God and Christ. It is we who dismiss this knowability of God, who disparage God’s self-revelation to us as insufficient to reveal truth directly, even through our situatedness. DeYoung says, “Postmoderns harbor such distrust for language and disbelieve God’s ability to communicate truth to human minds that they effectively engage in what Carson calls, ‘the gagging of God.’”50

Granted, our interpretations can be mistaken. We cannot know the meaning of texts with omniscience. Yet, God used language through human authors “who grew and changed and learned, and yet they didn’t hesitate to write about what knew and were convinced of.”51 Justin Taylor states,

We do not need a generous orthodoxy, as some have claimed. We want a humble orthodoxy….It is neither humble nor orthodox to undermine the inerrant, authoritative Word of God. There is nothing hip or cool or relevant about asking a new generation, “Did God actually say…?” The doctrine of God’s authoritative Word should be absolutely humbling. We are weak. We are biased. We are sinful. We idolize ourselves. And God has a powerful Word that stands over and above us. We must submit….Humility is following God’s Word wherever it goes, as far as it goes, neither going beyond it nor stopping short of it….It is not humble to be hesitant where God has been clear and plain.52

In conclusion, it matters crucially that as Christians we understand the basics of this core idea which so often is expressed in people who fit McKnight’s third category. To be sure, there are many involved in emerging churches who would fit into McKnight’s other two categories, and they do not necessarily have to accept the philosophical idea we have been considering. But, to the extent that anyone does accept it, that view will serve to undermine the core doctrines of Christianity. For that reason alone, we must carefully consider the view and its implications.

  1. Scott Smith (Ph.D.) is Associate Professor of Ethics and Christian Apologetics, Biola University, and author of Truth and the New Kind of Christian: The Emerging Effects of Postmodernism in the Church (Crossway, 2005). Jana Harmon has an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University.

Notes

1 “Modernity” might be characterized, roughly, as the period from the 1660s through perhaps WW II, though its influences are being experienced even today. Modernity has philosophical, scientific, ethical, sociological, and other dimensions. While we can glean various values and attitudes from McLaren’s descriptions that I have included here, others might be the optimism and confidence in human reason, apart from revelation, to know universal truths; and the goodness of knowledge, in particular that of science, which would be used (supposedly) for the betterment of humankind. But, two major events helped undermine peoples’ confidence in the goodness of science: the (1) revelation of the Nazi camps and their use of scientific experiments upon Jews and others; and (2) the use of the atom bomb. Science could be used as an instrument of oppression and evil. The confidence in the goodness and inevitable progress of science started to give way to the more postmodern attitude of suspicion.
2See his “Five Streams of the Emerging Church,” http://www.christianitytoday.com/40534, accessed March 27, 2007.
3Mark Driscoll, “A Pastoral Perspective on the Emergent Church,” Criswell Theological Review 3:2 (Spring 2006), 90.
4McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church,” 3. 5Ibid.
6Ibid.
7Ibid.
8Ibid.
9James K.A. Smith, “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? A Response to the ‘Biola School,’” in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn, ed. Myron B. Penner (Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2005), 221.
10Ibid., 222.
11Ibid.
12Ibid. (emphasis in original).
13Cf. James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 144. 14James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 42. 15Smith, The Fall of Interpretation, 150.
16Ibid., 150-1.
17Ibid., 43.
18 Ibid.
19Ibid., 53.
20 Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? 38. 21Ibid.,39. Seealsohis“Who’sAfraidofPostmodernism? A Response to the ‘Biola School,’” 225.
22Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? 39. 23Ibid.,49.
24Smith, “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? A Response to the ‘Biola School,’” 218.
25Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda, Rockwell Lecture Series, ed. Werner H. Kelber (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1996), 92.
26Nancey Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997), 27.

27 Ibid., 127.
28In his Postmodern Youth Ministry, Jones also supports this view by drawing upon Murphy (under whom

he studied at Fuller), W.V.O. Quine and Alasdair MacIntyre.
29Brian McLaren, More Ready Than You Realize (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 76.
30Ibid., 94.
31Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 106.
32E-mail correspondence from Brian McLaren to Scott, July 17, 2006.
33Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2005), 032.
34Ibid.
35Tony Jones, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA,
2008), Appendix C: “Disastrous Statements,” 234.

36Bell, 022-028.
37Jones, 110.
38Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville, TN, 2003), 103.
39Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) (Moody Publishers: Chicago, IL, 2008), 32.
40Bell, 033.
41Ibid., 027.
42Jones, 111. Dispatch 10: Emergents believe that theology is local, conversational, and temporary. To be faithful to the theological giants of the past, emergents endeavor to continue their theological dialogue.
43Ibid., 141.
44Bell, 46-57.However, in the tradition of the Reformation, theology’s goal is not innovation, but rather clarification and explanation to continually move back toward the mandate of Scripture, not the influences of culture.
45Brian McLaren, http://www.understandthetimes.org/mclarentrans.shtml, 5-6, quoting the interview by Leif Hansen (The Bleeding Purple Podcast, with Brian McLaren, January 8th and 12th, 2006); Part 1: http:// bleeding purple podcast .blogspot.com/2006/01/brian-mclaren-interview-part-i.html; Part II: http://bleeding purple pod cast. blog spot.com/2006/01/interview-with-brianmclaren-part-ii.html); accessed March 6, 2008.
46DeYoung and Kluck, 79. They think this view is influenced by Karl Barth
47Ibid., 80.
48Leif Hansen, http://www.understandthetimes.org/mclarentrans.shtml, 6.
49DeYoung and Kluck, 40.
50DeYoung and Kluck, 36-37, quoting D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 1996).
51Ibid., 83.
52Justin Taylor, An Emerging Church Primer, September 2006, 7. http://www.9marks.org/partner/Article_ Display_Page/0,,PTID314526%7CCHID598014%7CCIID2249226,00.html; accessed March 2008.