The Emergent Church and the Word of God (2)

Consider this statement made in A New Kind of Christianity, by Brian McLaren, a key player in the Emergent Church: “If the Bible is God’s revelation, why can’t Christians finally agree on what it says? Why does it seem to be in conflict with science so often? Why has it been so easy for so many people to use the Bible to justify such terrible atrocities?”

Does this sound familiar? Young people will be all too aware of this fashionable tactic that starts with a question designed to attack the “literalness” of the Bible and ends with a statement of “fact” undermining its “authority.” “How can you possibly believe that God created the universe in six literal days? Are you aware that science has already proven the theory of evolution?”

However, the quotation above marks a major shift. While this argument is commonly forwarded by atheists, Brian McLaren is a professing “Christian.” In another book, A Generous Orthodoxy, his attack on Biblical literalness is strengthened, leaving us in no doubt as to his position. While speaking of evolution he refers to it as “elegant, patient, logical, and actually quite wonderful,” going on to describe it as “more wonderful even than a literal six-day creation blitz.” The inference of all such reasoning is that the Bible has been superseded by the empiricism of science, the atrocities of history, and the relativism of philosophy, and therefore it cannot be taken literally and is not authoritative.

Recent church history is punctuated by a litany of attempts to undermine and relegate Biblical authority, and by extension, the existence of absolute truth. This is a direct consequence of the deliberate choice of liberal theologians to attempt “cultural” relevance in the face of the aggressive “secularization” of society. The “Neo-evangelicals” started the ball rolling in the 1950s by questioning Biblical “inerrancy,” the doctrine that the Bible is internally consistent and free from error (Psa 19:7a). The 1960s and 70s were dominated by the Charismatic Movement, which promoted personal experience and diminished Biblical “sufficiency,” the doctrine that Scripture can provide for every temporal and spiritual need (2Tim 3:16-17). By the mid 1990s, the “Seeker Sensitive” movement had arrived, relying heavily on “market-based strategies” to attract members by addressing their “felt needs” and discarded what was deemed intolerable. It undermined Biblical “relevance,” the doctrine that the Bible is appropriate to all people at all times (Heb 4:12). The conflict of Biblical “authority” with church history is particularly relevant to the Emergent Church, which as well as holding to much of the error previously highlighted, especially seeks to subvert Biblical “clarity,” the doctrine that the Bible can be understood with certainty and coherency (Psa 19:7b).

This conflict is encapsulated in the seed plot of The Shack. Mack, the central character, receives a handwritten note inviting him to meet Papa (his wife’s preferred way of addressing God the Father) at “The Shack” (a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain,” and the site of the discovery of his young daughter’s brutal murder). As he examines it we read: “He had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper …. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized …. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book.”

Reader beware! This enlightening excerpt underlines a number of “Emergent” errors with regard to the Word of God. First, is the rejection of the completeness of the canon of Scripture (Psa 19:7a; 1Cor 13:10; Col 1:25), coupled with its erstwhile stablemate, the suggestion of present day personal communication of God with man (other than in prayer and Bible reading), leading to a denial of Biblical “sufficiency.” Doug Pagitt corroborates this by referring to Scripture merely as “a member with great sway [in our community] and participation in all our conversations.” So instead of being all sufficient and therefore the final authority, the Bible is just one voice among many. Will Samson concludes: “Sola Scriptura tends to downplay the role of God’s Spirit in shaping the direction of the church.”

Second, we are led to believe that the inspiration of Scripture, from God to men by the Holy Spirit (2Peter 1:21), who duly recorded it on scrolls allowing it to be later delivered to us in a book, is in some way a “reduction” of God’s Word. In support of this, Rob Bell refutes “inspiration” completely, by describing Scripture as “a human product” written by men with a variety of agendas. If this is so, then by extension it is also fallible. God forbid!

Finally, the suggestion is made that overtly logical Christians, in search of “clarity” and “coherence” and infected by the curse of rational modernism, have confined God to a book, thus removing the possibility of an extra experience such as being invited to a “shack.” This is endorsed by Brian McLaren who insists that Scripture should not be thought of as a “legal contract,” where each verse is interpreted in the context of the whole in order to get the sense, but rather as a “community library” written by a variety of men, from a variety of backgrounds, at a variety of times. For example, rather than Paul writing Romans as an epistle outlining the gospel, consisting of “propositional truths” (statements of fact forming doctrine), it is instead merely “a letter to some people he loves on a subject he loves.” It is not to be thought of as a “premeditated work of scholarly theology,” formed of “articles and sections and clauses.” While it is definitely true that Paul loved his subject and recipients to the extent he wrote to them, in order for it to carry power and authority, its truth must be propositional.

By promoting the role of the writers at the expense of divine inspiration, and attacking Biblical literalness by highlighting the supposed “conflicts” with science, history, and philosophy, the Emergent Church has repudiated Biblical authority. In so doing, it has also supplanted Biblical sufficiency, and opened the door to a whole new schema of interpretation. Emergent interpretation overturns the rational and systematic presentation of doctrine with certainty, and introduces ambiguity by focusing on language, meaning, and subjectivity. Before the attack on fundamental evangelicalism can begin, Biblical clarity must be subverted. The key to this lies in the successful destruction of Biblical authority. This approach is the modus operandi of authors such as McLaren, Bell, and Rollins, and is intended to remove the Word of God as a foundation. McLaren even goes as far as to state that “the Bible never calls itself the foundation.” Readers should be aware that contrary to this Paul declares that the household of God is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph 2:20).

The attack on Biblical “clarity” goes far deeper than the current preference for ambiguity and moral relativism in our postmodern world, which has been imbibed by “Emergents.” It is in fact essential to their “doctrinal” position. The foundation of the Word of God is dependent upon its clear and plain understanding. In addition to teaching its foundational purpose, Scripture also clearly attests to its own clarity and coherency. Luke outlines his purpose in recording his Gospel, by stating that it was written “in order” (successively or coherently, the same word he uses to describe the whole of the prophets in Acts 3:24) that Theophilus might know the “certainty (firmness or stability) of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed” (Luke 1: 3-4). How good to know that in the face of oppressive antagonism, sacred truth is upheld and preserved in the Word of God.

We should not be surprised at the direction of this attack. Long before the “Neo-evangelicals” or Brian McLaren conceived their presumption, the Serpent in the garden asked this question of Eve: “Hath God said?” (Gen 3:1). The attack was on the clarity and authority of a simple divine command, bringing with it a disastrous effect upon the course of humanity. The repetition of this age-old strategy demands that Christians not only be careful as to what Bible version they use, but also discern carefully the quality of the literature they read and the music they enjoy.