What the Emergent Church Believes About the Gospel: Part One

Thursday, June 23, 2005

What the Emergent Church
Believes About the Gospel:
Part One

In this particular post on the Emerging Church I want to emphasize first hand source material on what leaders in the EC believe about the gospel. It is only fair since I have previously criticized them on other points. Whenever we step into the arena of criticism, we must remember that our omnipresent God is with us, watching every word we say, and listening to every private thought we think. This demands honesty and integrity from every believer when dealing with things that are new or perhaps otherwise unfamiliar. I've included the link to each statement so that you can view it in its context. If I got it wrong, please leave feedback correcting me. Sit back when you're done and evaluate your agreement with these statements as they stand.

  • "Anything that insinuates we need to earn or merit grace or forgiveness is, to me, dangerous and untrue." Brian Mclaren answering a question on penance.

  • "I’d recommend, for starters, you read “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross” (by Baker and Green). There will be a sequel to this book in the next year or so, and I’ve contributed a chapter to it. Short answer: I think the gospel is a many faceted diamond, and atonement is only one facet, and legal models of atonement (which predominate in western Christianity) are only one small portion of that one facet. Dallas Willard also addresses this issue in “The Divine Conspiracy.” Atonement-centered understandings of the gospel, he says, create vampire Christians who want Jesus for his blood and little else. He calls us to move beyond a “gospel of sin management” – to the gospel of the kingdom of God. So, rather than focusing on an alternative theory of atonement, I’d suggest we ponder the meaning and mission of the kingdom of God." Brian Mclaren elaborating on a question about theories of atonement.

  • "You note that the postmodern world will fundamentally oppose some aspects of our message. No doubt this is true (acknowledging that “the postmodern world” is actually a world composed of many different worlds, often quite divergent ones). But it is also true that the modern world was hostile to other elements of our message – and I hope that as you seek to understand our message, you’ll remember that we have probably lost or distorted essential elements already in our struggles with modernity. In other words – it’s not that we’re starting with a great understanding of the gospel, and we might lose it in postmodernity: I think we’re starting with a pretty distorted picture already. That’s why I often say that our biggest challenge – before we can preach the gospel to postmodern people, is to discern whether we understand it ourselves!" Brian Mclaren answering a question on how to preach the cross in light of postmodernism.

  • Emerging Church leader Eddie Gibbes in Fuller Seminary Theology, News, & Notes, Fall 2004 writes on "Reinventing Evangelism. There are ten things to consider. Make sure to read the full article.
  • 1. We need to be energized by a fresh realization of the radical and comprehensive nature of the gospel.

    2. We must communicate the gospel as the story of God’s saving mission in the world rather than as a series of abstract propositions.

    3. Our conviction must be that evangelization emerges from the heart of the Church rather than being fabricated at the periphery.

    4. We understand that decisions for Christ must express a commitment to be a disciple of Christ.

    5. The Church must share the good news in the context of the marketplace of ideas and beliefs.

    6. We must assume that God is already at work in a person’s life prior to the arrival of any evangelist.

    7. We must communicate in a clear, caring, compelling, and compassionate manner.

    8. We must invite people to become involved in a community of believers as the first step to believing.

    9. We must be open to the possibility that God has something significant to teach through the person(s) with whom we are sharing the good news.

    10. We must allow time for people to process both intellectually and emotionally what they have heard and experienced.

  • "Your encapsulation of the gospel is interesting. I would happily endorse it as far as it goes, but there are a number of respects in which I would now consider it inadequate if not potentially misleading. I would suggest that it is actually a rather poor representation of the ‘good news’ that we find in the New Testament, which for both Jesus and Paul, in different ways, was a message about the people of God not about individuals. Jesus’ gospel was a message about the salvation of a nation facing concrete historical judgment; Paul’s gospel was a message about the incorporation of Gentiles into a renewed people of God, for whom Christ not Caesar was Lord." Andrew Perriman in response to my personal 'encapsulation' of the gospel.

  • "...yes, we believe that Jesus is the crucified and risen Savior of the cosmos and no one comes to the Father except through Jesus..." Response to Recent Criticisms by Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Spencer Burke, Brian McLaren, Dan Kimball, Andrew Jones, Chris Seay.

  • "We don't have to talk about sin. It's a given. What we're all longing for is good news." Mike Yaconelli, In the Name of Jesus (New York: Crossroad, 1993). Yaconelli was writing about his experience in L'Arche, which is an international community dedicated to helping the mentally disabled. Carson elucidates in his book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, that after Yaconelli's experience at L'Arche, he returned to his church where things began to change. "They didn't talk about sin much any more - perhaps twice in twelve years since L'Arche, Yaconelli writes - not because they did not believe in sin, but because they already knew all about sin and addiction to sin, and what they needed now was grace" (p. 20).

  • "Salvation is most often assessed by one's ability to regurgitate the propositions about Christ and faith. In theological terms this is called metanoia, the cognitive switch that turns our head ushering us into salvation." Chris Seay, "I Have Inherited the Faith of My Fathers" (pp. 74-84) in Stories of Emergence: Moving from Absolute to Authentic, edited by Mike Yaconelli. Seay makes this statement in the context of his personal analysis and assessment of Western Christianity's tendency to confuse knowledge with power. Seay believes that the gospel is not simply a set of propositions, but is "everything - the whole story of God for whole people" (p. 81).
  • I've tried to capture the authors above in their original context, not intending to distort or twist their intended meaning to suit any of my own presupposed ends. If I've erred, please comment with feedback so I can make revisions where necessary.

    Having recounted these statements, I again wish to express my love for these men as brothers in Christ. We must assume that from the outset, no matter our disagreements. I do not know them personally, and have no reason to doubt their love for the Saviour. I agree with the sentiments of EC leaders such as Scott Henwood who wrote the following in his article entitled "One Truth: Where did the Concept of Multiple Truth Begin" on the EC website Allelon.

    "My stand is that the unity of the church should be valued over and above whatever disagreements we may have. The creeds of years gone by were an attempt to maintain the unity of the church while correcting heretical thought that tried to create disunity. We should maintain an openness to understand that our theology may need looked at as we understand more of what God is saying in our world. After all, I once heard it said that theology is not the truth, it is an attempt to protect the truth. I believe this to be correct. Our theology, our attempt to protect the truth, should not lead us to break apart the greatest asset God gave us, the Body of Christ. One truth; the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the gospel message. Anyone who can agree with this truth should be our ally, friend, and brother/sister."

    Further, analyses by EC contributors such as Duane Cottrell (in his article "Looking for Church") are absolutely correct and I would simply ask what evangelical is there who would not agree with such a sentiment?

    "My first issue is primarily theological, and therefore requires a look beneath the surface of most churches. I feel that the church in America has embraced a very self-centered gospel. We begin our sharing of that gospel by promising that 'God loves you and has a plan for your life.' Somewhere later on down the line we misquote Jeremiah and say that God's plan is "to prosper you and not to harm you.' What we end up with is a large group of hopeful believers who expect God to keep them from harm and make their lives prosperous and successful. I would like to see a church that acknowledges the fact that God has a plan for His people collectively, not necessarily individually, and if we willingly join our life with His, we may very well lose our individual life for the collective good of God's Kingdom. The life of a Christian may be filled with difficulty, struggles, pain and suffering, much of which has nothing to do with our faith. God has never promised to keep us from these kinds of things, and many American Christians who believe He has will be hurt and confused when something bad happens. Church should be a place to work through those issues without using the phrases, 'God has a plan,'and' everything happens for a reason.' A closely related theological issue is the end goal of the Gospel. Much of our evangelism is based on the reward of eternal life. 'Pray this prayer so you can go to heaven when you die. In the meantime, here's a Sunday school class, a choir, a mission trip and an offering plate to keep you occupied until you do.' The truth is that the Gospel is an invitation into a new life-God's life-through Jesus Christ, and that life begins now. When we make a decision to join Him, we are committing our entire life to His work and His ways."

    I would, however, wish to restate my basic fear regarding the undercurrent of the EC which is away from absolutism. The bottom line is that the beliefs which they hold so dearly about the gospel cannot help but erroded by a desire to abandon absolutism when it comes to such basic matters of Scripture. So while I believe these men believe the gospel, I can count with much certainty on the fact that the next generation who are following these men and their teachings, will find themselves very far downstream from the biblical gospel of Christ. In closing, I emphasize again the words of Andrew Perriman of Open Source Theology regarding my personal fears about the gospel and the EC.

    "If the emerging church is seriously asking itself, ‘What exactly is this “gospel” that we are proclaiming to the world?’, the likelihood is that there will be some loss of clarity and conviction. My own view is that this uncertainty has to be gone through. The hope is that we are working towards a renewal of clarity and conviction."

    Other articles that would be helpful in defining the EC's current understanding of the gospel and some of its implications and explanations are the following:

    It is also helpful to understand the theological underpinnings of the EC as it relates to the gospel. N.T. Wright, in particular, has had a huge impact on the EC. His three volume contribution - Christian Origins and the Question of God to the world of systematic theology has attempted to define the gospel more in its larger theological contexts, essentially asking and answering the questions, "Who is Jesus Christ, Why did He Come, and What did He Accomplish?"

    Further, Wright's redefinition of justification by faith alone in recent years has been extremely troublesome to say the least. The impact of archaeological evidences in the area of Second Temple Judaism has been overamplified, in my opinion, in the area of theology. These things are useful, to be sure, but when the centuries old perspicual gospel of the Scriptures comes to be questioned by recent 'academia' we should question what in the world is going on. Again, this is just my opinion and observation, but I think that it is only because of postmodernism that Wright's teachings in the area of the gospel have been able to gain so much foothold in evangelicalism, as well as especially in the EC movement. I do not question the man's commitment or devotion to Christ, mind you. But I do question his redefinition of the heart of the gospel in a way that does not bring our sinfulness and God's wrath upon it to bear on salvation. Andrew Perriman wonderfully summed up Wright's view on the gospel when he commented, "Jesus’ gospel was a message about the salvation of a nation facing concrete historical judgment; Paul’s gospel was a message about the incorporation of Gentiles into a renewed people of God, for whom Christ not Caesar was Lord." That is part of the big picture of the gospel, to be certain. But while such a view helps in getting the macro view of the scope and plan of the gospel, it fails miserably in doing exegetical justice to the micro view of the central truths of the gospel found in so many verses and texts throughout the New Testament.

    For a basic introduction to The New Perspective on Paul, read Wright's article on his webpage. Also available on his page is his article, "The Shape of Justification, "Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire", "Jesus, Israel and the Cross", and "On Becoming the Righteousness of God" just to name a few. Other articles, including audio and videos are available at NTWrightPage.Com.

    To read a smathering of articles by Wright that have helped shape the EC movement's view on the gospel, Allelon's General Article page is helpful. MP3's of Wright's lectures are also available on the Emergent Village's resource page. To work through various sound critiques of Wright's view of the gospel, see Monergism's page A Critical Look at the New Perspective on Justification (N.T. Wright).

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