Emergent: History & Characteristics

This entry is part 12 of 23 in the series Wolves in Wool


The Emergent/Emerging movement needs special explanation concerning its inclusion in the Wolves in Wool: Creeps in The Church series.  More specifically, a disclaimer should be noted concerning this movement.  Unlike the Word of Faith movement studied up to this point, the Emergent/Emerging movement is much more difficult to define.  And, its definition leaves perhaps half of the movement in the “Creeps” category, while the other half of the movement – though suspect- appears to be attempting to uphold orthodox theological thought.

In the end, my fear is that many in the more moderate “emerging” branches of this movement will continue migrating toward their Emergent counterparts.  Yet, there are many in this shallow end of the emerging pool who are indeed speaking against some of the ridiculous postulates of the Emergent “branch” of the movement, which gives me hope that they can indeed achieve their goals of being more relevant to our post-modern community without succumbing to the darkness themselves.


The emerging church (including Emerging and/or Emergent variants) was founded in the late 20th century.  The U.S. versions arose in the late 1990’s as the result of a group of church leaders desiring to create a new methodology of “church” to reach the post-modern culture.  There were also European emerging trends for the few years prior.

In Emerging trends,

Participants seek to live their faith in what they believe to be a “postmodern” society. Proponents of this movement call it a “conversation” to emphasize its developing and decentralized nature, its vast range of standpoints and its commitment to dialogue. What those involved in the conversation mostly do agree on, is that they are disillusioned with the organized and institutional church and support the deconstruction of modern Christian worship, modern evangelism, and the nature of modern Christian community.

Essentially, the Emergent/Emerging movement is about attempting to “do church” better than church has been done; particularly as it is related to reaching a postmodern culture.  Believing that the church has failed to reach the postmodern culture (which they largely have), they began a “conversation” (their hip term for “meetings”) which focused on the creation of a movement in the church to reach post moderns.  In itself, this is a great attempt.  Paul himself wrote,

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (NIV)
19 Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Surely an attempt to make ourselves and our message more understandable to a culture – albeit our own- is a good and biblical pursuit, provided we do not change the message of the gospel.  Indeed it should be observed from the onset of this section that I do NOT consider the emergent/emerging movement to be fundamentally flawed in its purpose, hopes, attitudes or intentions, but rather, in some cases, their theology.  And, there are veins of the movement which are rightly dividing the word of truth and are being a true light in the darkness.  Some emerging congregations, as will be demonstrated shortly, are taking the heart and soul of the movement’s desire to reach their cultures seriously while continuing to uphold orthodox biblical doctrines.  Yet, the larger part of the movement has determined that theological orthodoxy is necessarily “old-school” and is to be tossed out with the bath water.  Orthodoxy simply does not fit the profile of the new, hip, postmodern culture, but is a left-over from modernity in the mindset of many in the movement.

To that end, much of understanding the approach and practice of the emerging movement is best understood in light of an examination of its antagonistic response toward modernism.

Rejection of Modernity

As the emerging movement is a reactionary, “post-modern” movement, it focuses much of its efforts on the dismissal of anything and everything that smells of modernism.

Modernism, as an age, was characterized by a generally logical worldview.  Scientific and rationalistic thought were at the heart of culture, art, philosophy and education.  Human reason was the ultimate judge between what was judged as truth and what was considered erroneous.  Modernism gave rise to Darwinism, communism and theological liberalism.  The world view of modernism was also one which rejected ideas of the supernatural and sought a scientific explanation for all things.  Yet, the understanding of absolute truth is not lost in modernism.  While it is attempted to be discerned via logic, absolute truth is believed to exist and be an expression of the truth itself.

Postmodernism systematically revolts against modernity in several areas.  While this work is not a study on post modernity, it is essential to understand a basic framework of post modernity in order to understand the basis of the Emerging/Emergent movement.  For example, post modernism rejects the essence of absolute truths being able to be comprehended on a human level.  The post modern may think that truth exists, but will reject the notion that anyone can personally and fully understand it.  Truth may be there, but it is unsettled.  The moment one claims to truly understand truth, he has lost the credibility of a post modern audience.

While Paul proclaimed himself to become “all things to all men” so that he could reach the world with the gospel he did not presume to change the content of his message to be more palatable to his audience; rather, he changed his approach.  In Athens, Paul engaged Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who disputed with him (Acts 17:18).  This “dispute” clearly indicates the lack of acceptance of his message, though he continued to preach his message rather than change it to be more palatable to their ears.  In fact, the philosophers ridiculed Paul publicly.  Paul’s response, however, was to continue to present the same gospel message to them in, but in a manner which they could relate to.

Acts 17:22-23 (NIV)
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

Using their own cultural icons, Paul recognized and acknowledged their own understanding of something missing from their polytheistic system.  Even they recognized another God existed which they knew not.  Paul, seeing this hunger, engaged it with is own explanation of the ‘UNKNOWN GOD’ which they acknowleged.

In the end, Paul’s work did not product huge followings and mega-church meetings.  In fact, only a few received his message.

Acts 17:34 (NIV)
34 A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Ironically, in our culture it seems that unless one attracts thousands, one is perceived to be doing their gospel work incorrectly. 

A large portion of the emerging movement, contrarily, has changed their message rather than their methods; giving themselves wholeheartedly to the ideologies of their culture and watering down the truths of the gospel in order to be more palatable to the post-moderns.  In effect, instead of the church changing culture, culture has changed the church.  We now must not only contend with the ignorance of a lost and dying world, but with the administration of discipline among our own (the global church) who have dimmed their lights so as not to over-stimulate their supposed mission fields.  In short, there is a large difference between engaging people where they are “so that by all possible means I might save some,” and accepting the world views of the lost culture so that by no possible means can we do so. 

Generally, the emerging movement has two general categorical branches, though is not formally denominationalized  nor organized.  One branch, the “Emerging” branch, tends to be more orthodox in their doctrines and evangelical work, though not without exception.  Some in this movement are being quite successful along the lines of what Paul wrote of.  They are attempting to reach their culture where and as they are, yet they have not rid themselves of propositional truth and orthodoxy; they have left the gospel intact.  Meanwhile many in the “Emergent” branch of this movement have utterly defied biblical doctrines in favor of the acceptance of our cultural mantra of ‘no truth being able to be understood.’  Indeed, according to Brian McLaren, probably the most revered mouthpiece of this movement,

Certainty is a cancer.
Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, P.38

It is mostly the emergent branch of this movement which will be under biblical fire in the coming sections.  However, even the Emerging branch has tendencies which, if not addressed, will place it exactly on the same path as their Emergent counterparts. 


Narrative Theology

Narrative Theology, also known as postliberal theology, is another 20th century development (as are the Emergent/Emerging movements)  which defines biblical interpretation as stemming from a narrative presentation of the faith of God rather than the development of a systematized theology from scripture.  In short:  the Bible is a story rather than a set of propositional truths.  Theologians at Yale Divinity School are credited commonly with the development of this theological trend. 

Propositional truths are those truths derived from declarative statements in a text.  For example, Romans 3:23 states, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Make no mistake:  Romans 3:23 is to be understood in light of the entire book of Romans and in light of the whole of scripture.  Yet, it makes articulate declarations concerning man:  all have sinned, and all have fallen short of God’s glory.  Such propositions are commonly skimmed or utterly overlooked in a uniquely narrative approach to theology.

Narrative Theology demonstrates a necessary characteristic of the Bible; that it is an ongoing “story.”  It is true that scripture is not merely a collection of theological truths.  It is, in fact, a narrative concerning God’s history on earth.  It begins with God’s creation account.  It ends with the destruction of this fallen world and the creation of a new earth.  In the middle are all sorts of historical references and narratives.  Yes- the Bible in fact tells one great story, and no part of it can be properly understood outside of God’s historical campaign.

The contextualization of scripture is an essential part of a literal hermeneutic.  The contextual principle of interpretation demands that a text be only understood within its context within its larger framework.  Narrative theology rightly asserts the necessity of contextualization in its language.

The problem with Narrative Theology is not what it asserts, but rather what it omits at the expense of its assertions.  While highlighting the narrative “timeline” nature of God’s revelation of himself in scripture, proponents of Narrative Theology has come to assume that the “telling of the story” sufficiently concludes the Bible’s purposes for its reader.  While the assertion that scripture is “more than a set of propositions” is true, it is not true that propositional truth is lacking in scripture or that it should be omitted in favor of the telling of the story! 

While the concept of narrative theology does not necessarily demand the absence of propositional truth, the emergent use of narrative theology in fact, does.  Brian McLaren, an emergent author and key spokesperson for the movement, understands scripture to be primarily story- and only slightly declarative in its content.

“This mystical/poetic approach takes special pains to remember that the Bible itself contains precious little expository prose.”
Brian  McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy,  Page 155

Perhaps McLaren hasn’t read far enough past the gospels.  Let me give him some forewarning of what is to come:  Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, James Hebrews 1 & 2 Peter and some other “minor” books which are almost exclusively rich in propositional content, in demonstrable theology and in many cases are largely devoid of narrative substance.  The epistles are in effect doctrinal treatises for the churches to which they are sent, and the church at large.  In such cases, the narrative itself is the ongoing compilation of spiritual declarations which assemble themselves systematically into a complete theological whole.

McLaren and many of the Emergent masses are taking an somewhat practical but clearly erroneous position concerning narrative theology.  The fact that the scripture has a story permeating and at times even overwhelming it does not demand that the story is the full essence of the content.  There is in fact a great compilation of spiritual truths which transcend the narrative of scripture and even bring its meaning to life.  Narrative and propositional truths are both part of the scriptures.  Neither is to attempt to explain God’s revelation to man without the other. 

In the Emergent understanding of narrative theology, it will be demonstrated throughout this work that propositional truths are understood to be excluded, or at best secondary to the narrative presentation of scripture.  That Jesus was born, lived, died on a cross and was resurrected is a fundamental historical narrative of scripture.  But, to claim to understand the story as the fruition of God’s dealing with man’s sin, the penalty of that sin and his demonstration of his authority to pay for man’s sin is to put too much emphasis on the narrative itself and to utterly avoid the myriads of theological truths which are clearly made evident in scripture through declarative theological statements.  According to the Emergent understanding of the Bible, however, the ability to truly understand the propositions in scripture is beyond the ability of man; or at least is beyond any level of certainty in man’s theological position.

“Emergent doesn’t have a position on absolute truth, or on anything for that matter. Do you show up at a dinner party with your neighbors and ask, ‘What’s this dinner party’s position on absolute truth?’ No, you don’t, because it’s a non-sensical question.”
Tony Jones at the 2005 National Youth Workers Convention

As long as we’re discussing that which is nonsensical, may I ask what on earth a dinner party has to do with one’s proposing absolute truth existing in scripture?  But Jones’ talking points are well founded, for he perfectly represents the problem with emergent culture.  The utter inability to embrace propositional truth is precisely what hinders the narrative of the Bible to be properly understood; for the two are mutually indispensable.

On the practical side, without propositional truth there is nothing to hold a narrative approach to theology from being used irresponsibly.  Without the inherent teaching of absolute, enduring truths in scripture, then one has the ability to “interpret” the narrative of a given story to support their own agenda.  The Bible becomes, in effect, a great poem; to be creatively interpreted in as many differing ways as there are readers to contemplate it.

One should be exceptionally cautious when attempting to change the very way something is understood for the supposed purpose of reaching a new audience.  It is one thing to use different illustrations or more meaningful worship practices.  It is quite another thing to suddenly change the truths which have established and held the Christian faith for thousands of years in light of a “new” system of interpretation which undermines the very history which brought us to this point.  While the ideals of narrative theology have merit- to accept narrative theology as the full means by which scripture is understood is tantamount to swapping one’s entire diet to a singular food, such as bread.  It is just as unbalanced of a diet to presume that the narrative of the Bible alone can lead one to a healthy revelation of God through scripture.

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