Emergent Church Movement and the Gospel: Open Source Theology

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Emergent Church Movement and the Gospel:
Open Source Theology

It's happening again, that feeling like you're being sucked into the vortex of a black hole of theology. That black hole is the Emergent Church. It is a vortex because it means that when you get sucked into it, you put on the mantle of critic, apologetic, polemicist, and pastor, of course. I don't like being the first three, but sometimes that is part of the last job. Pastoring is shepherding, keeping the sheep away from danger, away from pasture that may not be good for them, and water that might poison them.

Paul Schafer, over at Thoughts on the Christian Life, floated me an email about the website popularly, yet strangely, known as Open Source Theology. Now if you've never heard of this before, I want to put before you what the goal of the website is, along with a few other definitions of what Open Source Theology actually is.

First, the website asks, "What is Open Source Theology?" Here is the answer.


OST is a model for doing community-based 'theology'. This site makes use of drupal, a flexible and increasingly popular open-source (appropriately!) content management system. The format offers the possibility of developing collaboratively an applied theology appropriate to a particular missional purpose. At the moment this site has two basic objectives.

The first is to explore and promote the idea of an open-source theology. Is this a viable method for developing an applied, contextualized theology? What sort of rules would be needed? How does it relate to other forms of doing theology?

The second objective is to implement the open-source model as part of, and in support of, a renewed mission to the emerging culture. Can we use OST to develop a belief-system - a rationality, a theology, a rhetoric, an ethos, a style - that will give intelligent, convincing, and powerful expression to the gospel within the emerging culture?

So, what we gather from Open Source Theology is that it seems based primarily on a concept of computer software known as 'open source.' According to the OpenSource.Org website,

"The basic idea behind open source is very simple: When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing."

To be sure, Open Source Theology, as far as I can tell, doesn't necessarily derive its name from this software. Yet everywhere I look to find definition about this theology, it does to the gospel and theology for Christians just what the software hopes to do for programmers.

Now, many of you may not be software lovers, or programmers. And most of you are happy just to be able to know how to turn on your computers and log on to your email server. Read what the Open Source software hopes to accomplish. Why read these paragraphs? Because the comparison to Open Source Theology is frightening. The Open Source Theology seems to be heading in the same direction with Scripture that Open Source software is with programming.


"We in the open source community have learned that this rapid evolutionary process produces better software than the traditional closed model, in which only a very few programmers can see the source and everybody else must blindly use an opaque block of bits.Open Source Initiative exists to make this case to the commercial world.

"Open source software is an idea whose time has finally come. For twenty years it has been building momentum in the technical cultures that built the Internet and the World Wide Web. Now it's breaking out into the commercial world, and that's changing all the rules. Are you ready? This site is still evolving as we think through the implications of open source in the commercial world. We don't claim to have all the answers yet, so mail us with your thoughts and criticisms."

Now compare this to the description that Seven Magazine gives of Open Source Theology in their April '02 edition.

"The open source theology site (www.opensourcetheology.net) is an attempt to redesign the structures of faith for a postmodern environment. I strongly believe that the crisis of postmodernism has given us the opportunity to rethink what it means to be authentically Christian in the world and to recreate a compelling public Christian discourse.I have taken the 'open source' model from computer programming and applied it (with some poetic license) to the process of creating a 'theology'. The website essentially provides an arena in which a community of interested people can collaborate in the development of an applied, contextualized theology."
Sounds alot like the aims of the software, doesn't it? Listen to the rest of the description.

"The project will be collaborative and community-driven. No one will have proprietorial rights over the ideas and arguments that emerge: it will simply be the expression of a collective struggle to articulate biblical faith in the space between God and the world. [does this refer to being 'in limbo'? If so, no wonder's Open Source Theology is so hard to define! Each OST'er is a parachuter floating in the sky against gravitational forces, unable to land anywhere.] As a natural extension of this, the open source theology model may work best if it is done within a real-life community, such as a church or a mission organization.

"There will be a strong emphasis on openness and open-endedness. [Primarily because it is 'in limbo' and will be unable to land anywhere.] The thinking and discussion that give rise to the theology should be transparent [does that means it's okay to tell them they're going to die from a lack of oxygen if they stay up there in the atmosphere for too long?] and responsive to feedback from others. If an argument doesn't work or doesn't make sense, [and it can't because every argument is 'in limbo.'] then the model must be able to respond to the feedback [which is also 'in limbo.']. The emerging theology may be consolidated and summarized at certain points but it will not be nailed down [thus, limbo theology]: in many respects the integrity of the process [of floating in the atmosphere] will be more important than the end-product [finding a safe place to land].

"The theology will be functional [even though it won't land anywhere]. Just as a computer program is designed to fulfill a particular purpose, an open source theology project requires a clear and shared understanding of how the resulting theology is to be applied. [Even though no two parachuters in limbo will be able to agree on how to apply it.]."


Why my snide remarks? Sorry if I'm letting my crucified sarcasm rear its ugly head again! You see, the Emerging Church has made an exodus out of postmodernism, seeing the many problems inherent in it. And their OST has come as the result of an attempt to chart where the Emerging Church is going.

Surely you see the problem then in the definitions and explanations above? Though it has weathered the gale storm of postmodernism and has come out on the other side, albeit living in makeshift shelters, sitting around the campfires like spiritual refugees (not my words, but the words from the rest of the article above), the problem is still inherent within the refugees. Let me put it this way:

You can take the Emergent Church member out of postmodernism,
but you can't take the postmodernism out of the Emergent Church member.


The truth of this statement can be seen in the very way in which the Emerging Church and OST hopes to handle the gospel, the Scriptures, and theology itself. They want to rework it, redefine it, reshape it, add to it, and do everything to it that Open Source software hopes to do to programming. That's where the danger to the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ comes in.

If the focus turns to utilizing what amounts to postmodernized methods of handling the Word of God (e.g. there are no absolutes), then when you attempt to interpret the Scriptures and make a conclusion on anything, there are no absolute interpretations or conclusions. Thus, you are floating around in an endless state of limbo, like a parachuter with no place to land, forever stuck in the air. And what is more, OST unwittingly deceives its thinkers into thinking that in such a state of limbo you can actually 'apply' your theology. To be sure, OST's "Rules of Engagement" clearly state that this is not what they want. They expressly desire,

"...to apply a basic missiological hermeneutic to the development of a
biblically grounded theology: How do we speak about these things to outsiders? "

But this becomes nearly impossible, as the "Rules" themselves seem to imply when they state:

"We should also expect an open-source theology to be modular. This is partly a
means of resisting the tendency to systematize doctrine..."

All of this is really dangerous for the gospel. Why? What are you going to tell the lost person who needs a Savior? If you allow for the gospel, like any other focus of theology, to be open-ended - to be modular - asking those who handle it to be open-minded, then the gospel loses its decisive, conclusive truth, and therefore has no more power save. No, OST would never say that it is ashamed of the gospel. It would agree with Paul on that. It would merely say that they are afraid (or 'ashamed' to put it biblically) of making a 'systematized' conclusion about the gospel.

My fear is that the EC and OST movements are not moving forward, but moving backward...backwards into the post-enlightenment period when the higher criticism of Scriptures began formulating in Germany and floating towards Britain and America. Scripture and theology, and the gospel especially, became merely 'talking points,' rather than truths on which to live and breathe and act.

The caveat to all of what I've said above is that I may have misunderstood the movement and its concurrent theology. That said, I did pastor five miles from one of the mainstays of the Emerging Church Movement - Mars Hill Church near Grand Rapids, MI, where Rob Bell is pastor. I watched over the course of two years as the Scriptures became all of the sudden 'not so clear' on particular issues anymore. And now it has come to be associated with a movement that seems to want to put everything on the table for discussion and rehashing again. That's terribly disturbing.

What ever happened to the creeds? Those documents that were forged out of years of rehashing and discussion...those documents that were formulated in the fires of heresy...those documents on which the gospel of Jesus Christ stands. Why the 'felt need' to go back and put all that on the table again for another round of endless discussions? Here's a thought: what if we just accepted them (since without them there is no gospel of Jesus Christ), and believed them, and studied by them, and preached according to them, and applied all of it to advance the kingdom of God?

If I'm off base here, get with me and straighten me out. I'm 'open minded' enough to see where I'm wrong...at least I believe I am!

For more critique of Open Source Theology and its comparison to Open Source software programming, see Warren Kelly's blog.

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