What the Emergent Church Believes About the Gospel: Part Three - Doug Pagitt

Thursday, July 28, 2005

(From the PBS interview between Kim Lawton and Doug Pagitt for the Emerging Church, Part One and Part Two.)

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LAWTON: How diverse are the churches that use the title "emergent"? Is it just style that is different, or are there some real theological differences?

DOUG PAGITT: There are some who are thinking more philosophically and theologically, and there are some who are even considering what the message of Christianity is, so a number have been saying for quite some time [that] it's really all three of those; they work together. A deeply held theological understanding is going to produce a certain way of functioning and is going to produce a certain kind of message that we're communicating. There's been a lot of work done with Christians who have thought that the problem is that the church has the wrong methodology. That could be the problem, but it may run deeper than that. It might be the wrong message that's being communicated; there might be some more deeply held presuppositions that have to be altered.

- My thoughts? This is an excellent statement by a key ECM leader who recognizes that there is most definitely a theological underpinning, a theological presupposition, that is at work beneath the surface of this movement. I've demonstrated that before in other posts on the ECM and the gospel, and it is reflected in Pagitt's belief that perhaps the modern, evangelical church has gotten the message wrong - the message of the gospel, I'm sure, being one of the more fundamental messages it has supposedly gotten wrong.

Is there any problem with questioning the message we communicate? Absolutely not. We ought to always in order to constantly make sure we are guarding the good deposit and contending earnestly for the faith. But is that really what the ECM is doing with the gospel? It does not appear so, especially with such theological language as 'deconstruction' of the gospel.

Identifying the Right Problem but Applying the Wrong Solution

I personally think that what's happened is that ECM leaders have rightly identified the fact that action is missing from Christianity such that 'Christianity', as we now know it and experience it, has become largely an organization which seems to be grounded primarily on believing the right stuff and affirming it, absent of any fruit (forgiveness, community, reconciliation, social justice, etc.) which it necessitates.

But in rightly identifying what is missing, they have wrongly identified the source, I believe. If I may oversimply the case a bit (just for the sake of argument), it appears that what has happened is much akin to taking a car to a mechanic because of some ordinary errors. "My brakes are squeeling and squeeking when I drive, and my engine is sluggish and making all kinds of racket." After doing a bit of basic diagnostic, the mechanic's analysis is that the oil hasn't been changed in umpteen thousand miles. Further, the fact that the owner was just in two months ago for a brake job and is now in need of another one seems to suggest that they drive with their foot on the brake. That's a right diagnosis. But then imagine him saying to the owner, "Sir, here's what I've found. You're not having your oil changed regularly enough, and you are driving with your foot on the brake. The problem then is that you've been driving the wrong kind of car." Thus, while rightly identifying the problem, he wrongly suggests a solution. In my opinion, this appears to be just what the ECM is doing with regards to the church and the gospel: right identification of problems and wrong identification of a solution to those problems.

The source is not that the wrong message has been communicated. The source is simply called an unbiblical gospel preached in many pulpits while disobedience and laziness toward a biblical gospel is allowed in other pulpits. At this point I really think that pretty much sums up the problem with the ECM. I happen to share many of their criticisms. But the solution is not to change the message. The solution is to preach the message right and to start growing local churches where repentance, change, obedience, discipline, good works, love, forgiveness, etc. are all mandates to which the saints are gently, yet firmly held accountable.

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LAWTON: When you use phrases like "rethinking Christianity" or "rethinking the Christian message," or when you say you are not so concerned about getting things right, a lot of evangelicals and a lot of Christians overall are threatened by that. What exactly are you calling for?

DOUG PAGITT: I understand that when someone hears people talking about rethinking Christianity or saying that we're more concerned about being good and beautiful than being right, that can unnerve someone, and it can make them think that you're going to lose the essence of Christianity. We're not talking about doing anything beyond what the church has always done, and that is to continually understand what God's activity in the world has been and what God's activity in the world continues to be. Christianity is just simply not a stagnant belief. I know that that comes as a very hard concept for some people to put their minds around or for people to accept. But Christianity has never been stagnant and has never been about uniformity. It has been about unity within distinctiveness. Christians are called to Christian unity but not uniformity, and to be right is a contextual reality. We certainly should be right in our contexts. But let's say that the Christians of the third century had felt that there was no need to reconsider what it meant to understand how Jesus was fully God and fully man for their language of the day. They were trying to take the first-century terms of what does it mean for the fullness of God to have dwelled in Christ Jesus, and they had to articulate that in a way that made sense for their day. And so the Trinity became a more unified belief and a statement of Christian doctrine. It didn't exist in that same context before, but they were right to do so, and they put it in a way that made sense in their day.

- My Thoughts? This is supremely important for gaining an understanding of the ECM position on theology and culture. The implication is clear, at least to me: the church today (and this is what the ECM claims to be after) needs to believe that it is right to put these things and others in a way that makes sense in our day. What this seems to slightly suggest is that what was said in their day won't work for our day.

I also seem to infer from Pagitt that the debate that raged in the third century about the trinity and later in the fourth and fifth centuries about the person and nature of the Son of God, was a debate centered on their time and culture. But, in his viewpoint, that doesn't mean the same debate, and consequent same language, theology, doctrine and belief is necessary for our time and culture. To be sure, some ECM churches quote the creeds, but other ECM'ers have told me they have little use for them, since they are statements of faith for another time and culture. In my opinion, arrogance is being reflected in a number of ways.

Reflections of Arrogance

First, there is much arrogance about 20 and 21st century culture in which we live. Solomon said there is nothing new under the sun, so why think that the culture in which we live in the last century and into this next one is really any different at all than the previous cultures of centuries and millenia past? That's very silly and naive. Do we think that culture had not changed at all or even a little bit between the first century (when the gospels were written) and the third century (when the debate about the Trinity raged)? It surely had changed a little, at least. And if culture changed even a little over a couple or more hundred years, why didn't he issues change? They didn't! There was still concern over understanding and defending how to define, preach and protect a biblical understanding of God and Christ and the Spirit. So if that culture changed throughout the debates on those issues, why does the ECM think that our culture is so special that those debates aren't important for us?

Second, there is arrogance shown in not seeing the use God means for us to make of these important debates and formulas and statements. Because these issues transcended time and culture back then, they ought to transcend our culture and time now. To miss the relevance of these debates and the theology which grew out of them is to be ponderously lost in the navel of our own culture.

A Reflection of Ignorance

There is also ignorance reflected in Pagitt's statement above (and I say so humbly, I hope). Largely it is ignorance about what really happened in those church councils that decided on the doctrines of God and Christ and the Spirit, and how we ought to talk about it all. There is much talk in the ECM about 'conversing' with other cultures around the world and talking with them to see what Christianity means to them (this statement taken directly from an interview with Brian McLaren, spokesperson for the ECM). But in the third and fourth centuries while these debates were raging on, the councils that decided on how to understand and define the Trinity, for example, were men from all over the known world at that time - men from different parts of the world, different cultures, different backgrounds, traditions, etc. But they all came together and somehow managed to agree on how to say something meaningful yet more importantly biblical about the Trinity and the Son of God on whom they staked their entire way of life. So what the church councils (at least most of them) show us us that diverse cultures can actually come together to agree on fundamentals of the gospel and actually say them in a time-tested, manifold culture-enduring way. But the ECM seems to see diversity in culture as necessitating diversity in belief and practice. Yet the early church (and church fathers) didn't seem to see it that way.

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"...all throughout culture and all throughout history God has been engaged in cultures where Christianity has been spread, and then Christianity has become that expression of the life of God inside that culture. So often Christianity does not bring the story of God to people; it rearticulates the story of God that is already functioning in culture and puts it into a broader Christian context."

- My Thoughts? This is certainly true, and I've argued for something like this before in my post entitled "The Gospel Redeems Culture for the Sake of the Gospel". But my only contention would be this: what if the 'story of God that is already functioning in culture' is not truly a biblical story? Where does this lead if not to a 'wide road' theology, advocated in the last decade by some world famous church leaders? It leads to the notion of accepting, affirming, and identifying as 'Christian' many stories and practices and beliefs and concepts in other cultures about God that may not be truly faithful to the Scriptures.

If ecumenism is the goal, this is the way to get there. But I'd like to interact more with Pagitt to see if this is what he means. By 'story of God' I infer now that he is referring primarily of the gospel and its biblical-historical narratives about God's rescue and deliverance of man (from sin?). But he may also be implying that we ought to simply embrace the 'stories of God' in other cultures, rather than reeducate (teaching and preaching) them. And why? Because in the minds of many ECM'ers, it is prideful and arrogant of us to believe that the way we conceive the message of the gospel is the only, right way. But I digress on this point (though I think I'm right!).

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