Book Review: Evangelicals Engaging Emergent

“Evangelicals Engaging Emergent” is a collection of essays by evangelical pastors and theologians exploring various aspects of the emerging and emergent church.   This book was published in the spring of 2009, and deals with a phenomenon that has been developing over the past twenty or so years, and in recent times has become increasingly divisive within some evangelical circles.

 The book begins with a forward by Thom Rainer (LifeWay Christian Resources) and some introductory remarks by William Henard (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary).  These are followed by two fairly extensive chapters by Mark Devine (Beeson Divinity School) and Ed Stetzer (LifeWay Christian Resources), each providing an overview of the movement, and identifying issues that should likely be of concern for evangelicals: concern relative to useful critiques of the evangelical movement emanating from emergents, or for assumptions, conclusions and practices by emergents which may be at a minimum unhelpful if not heretical and dangerous.

Following this stage-setting, the remaining essays are grouped into three major sections: Biblical, Theological and Practical.  In the Biblical section, Norman Geisler (Veritas Evangelical Seminary) and Thomas Howe (Southern Evangelical Seminary) address a post-modern view of scripture that characterizes some within the emergent movement.  Next, Douglas Blount (Dallas Theological Seminary) specifically deals with the “hermeneutics of taste” relative to Brian McLaren’s approach to scripture.  This section concludes with R. Scott Smith (Biola University) discussing philosophical and spiritual lessons related to the importance of truth, as viewed by emergents and evangelicals.

In the Theological section, Darrell Bock (Dallas Theological Seminary) reviews Christological thinking found within the emerging church movement, and Robert Sagers (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) explores views of salvation among emergents.  This section concludes with a discussion by John Hammett (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) of the view of the church and ecclesiology, according to emergents.

The Practical section contains a group of essays dealing with the impact of emergent thinking on how Christianity is lived out.  Daniel Akin (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) addresses the emergent church and ethical choices, providing some guidance in making decisions.  Jim Shaddix (pastor, Riverside Baptist Church, Denver, CO) deals with the diminished role of preaching, as viewed by some emergents.  Chuck Lawless (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) then addresses the views of evangelism within the emergent church.  Finally, concluding remarks are provided by Adam Greenway (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary).

I would first like to make a few comments about the readability of the book, and then discuss some of the content that seemed to me to be especially important or at least interesting.   Because we have herein a collection of essays where each author has an assigned area, there is a certain not unexpected unevenness not only in writing style, but also in writer orientation.  In many cases, the writer has attempted to be “balanced” in his approach, but in some, the writer exhibits a fairly uniformly negative view of the emergent movement.   Many of the writers provide references to D. A. Carson’s book “Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church” — a book which is quite critical of the movement.

An aspect of the book which took a little getting used to is some of the word-codes that have clearly been in the conversation among the authors and undoubtedly the seminary world in general.  Words like “contextualization”, “missiological”, “antifoundationalisam” and “orthopraxy” come to mind — there are more.  Maybe a “Glossary for Dummies” could be added in a future edition of this book.   Of course, because of the post-modern worldview that is the overall context of this discussion, such a glossary would need to have multiple entries for each definition — maybe with polling results among a random set of readers as to their favorite definition.   Point being, the target audience for this book is probably not the uninformed lay person.

Another observation is that to me there is very little mention of the third person of the Trinity — the Holy Spirit — in this book; implicitly, yes of course, but not explicitly  An exception was a very important observation by R. Scott Smith in his section “Some Spiritual Implications for ‘Emergents’ About the Heart-Mind Connection”, the following observation:

“If we believe we have access to reality only through our interpretations [as emergents such as McLaren believe]… I am afraid that we cannot avoid silencing God’s Spirit”.

Mr. Smith goes on to expose the heretical conclusions that logically follow such epistemological assumptions.

The emergent church movement is very diverse, with no centralized coordination.  However, a helpful generic grouping used by several of the writers is as follows:

Relevants: “…attempt[ing] to contextualize music, worship and outreach….theology is often conservative and evangelical….”.  “…conservative Evangelicals who want to update worship and preaching styles, and address church structures, rather than reshape theology”. Representative leaders in this group:  Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, Ed Stetzer.

Reconstructionists: “…concerned about existing church structures, these people emphasize an ‘incarnational’ model, and may find a home in the “house church” movement….”.  “…generally are theologically evangelical.  Dissatisfied with seeker, contemporary, and purpose forms of churches, they emphasize life transformation  of Christians”.   Some names of leaders in this group might be:  Dan Kimball, Rob Bell, Scot McKnight. (Incidentally, my subsequent investigation beyond the scope of this book would suggest that Rob Bell might be better placed in the Revisionists camp).

Revisionists: “For this group, both methodology and theology may be revisioned….Most of the harsh critique is reserved for this group….”.   “…are theologically liberal and criticize evangelical doctrines in terms of appropriateness for the emerging postmodern world.  For them core doctrines of Christianity are open to reconsideration, even if their formulations were developed at major councils or the Reformation”.  Maybe the best-known names of leaders in this group:  Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and Doug Pagitt.

It should be noted that even the above categorizations are too limiting; there are many variations, and a full reading of this book will help to fill in important details. 

The breadth of coverage in this collection of essays is quite extensive. A couple of the many issues of importance that are raised in my mind are the following:

  • Some Revisionists have a tendency to downplay salvation and becoming prepared for the afterlife, rather focusing on bringing God’s kingdom to this life.  This results in either no “traditional” evangelism, or drastically re-focused evangelism.  No big worries about the afterlife, heaven and hell: it’s this life that’s important.
  • Some Revisionists have a tendency to focus on our inability to know truth, and for example embrace many interpretations of scripture as equally valid: “maybe you’re right, maybe I am”.  Yet in other contexts, they deal in absolutes, such as for example their disdain for eschatology and things prophetic.  As the old joke goes, “I believe that there are no absolutes, and I believe that absolutely.”
  • In both the Reconstructionist and Revisionist camps, there are tendencies in the direction of including more art and other sensory elements – incense, for example – into worship settings.  There also seems to be trends to move in the direction of embracing Roman Catholicism.  Also, the term “social justice” is used from these camps, and my assumption is that this would be defined in leftist terms, although if truly postmodern, why wouldn’t “social justice” thinking produce equivocation: “maybe socialism is best, but then again maybe capitalism is best [to promote social justice]”?
  • It was suggested by at least one of the writers that the Revisionist camp has much in common with the neo-orthodox movement of the 20thcentury, and other parallels of the more extreme emergentism have much in common with neo-gnosticism and the New Age.

Much of the criticism of evangelicals by emergents seems elementary to me: issues that should be obvious to the Christian who walks close to God.  Throughout my life, I have known a remnant of people who really “got it” in the spiritual dimension.  These people didn’t need a movement to inform them how to think and behave – they seemed to be directly led by God, as revealed in scripture.   Fifty years ago, missionaries knew the importance of learning the culture they were called into, and of in effect incarnating themselves into these people groups, getting involved in medical clinics and hospitals, dealing with poverty, ignorance, etc.; this in nothing new.  Similarly, these saints of God seemed to be able to continually relate to people they met in the culture, as times and worldviews changed.   So to me, it has been walking close to God, being people of faith, prayer, listening to the Holy Spirit, obeying Him, and becoming more Christ-like and less fleshly and self-centered – these kinds of people, rich, poor, all cultures, races, ethnicities, who quietly make a difference for the Kingdom of God, regardless of the trends within the organized church, seminaries, movements etc.

There seems little doubt to me that the emergent church movement is a consequence of a philosophical paradigm shift in a significant portion of western culture from modernism to post-modernism.   This shift impacts Christians in at least two important ways: (1) there is a need to understand this cultural shift, to become more effective in the tasks of evangelization and discipleship, and yet (2) important discernment is needed to understand where the postmodern mindset is most significantly eroding the truth of the Gospel, and especially when that erosion takes place from those who proclaim the name of Christ, but are actually teaching a different Gospel.

This book then serves as a good starting point to discover some of the important issues presented by the emerging church movement, and to be better equipped to learn from those critiques that emergents express of current evangelicalism, and to also be alerted to counteract at a foundational level those theological revisions which can significantly erode a correct understanding of the ways of God as revealed in the scriptures.

Richard Mann

Quincy, MA

July 1, 2009

Evangelicals Engaging Emergent: A Discussion of the Emergent Church Movement

Edited by William D. Henard and Adam W. Greenway

Forward by Thom S. Rainer

B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, Tennessee

Copyright © 2009 William D. Henard and Adam W. Greenway

ISBN: 978-0-8054-4739-2

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