DA Carson and the Emergent Movement, Part 3

In this third installment of DA Carson’s important new book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, we will briefly summarize and ask questions of his third chapter, a chapter on how well (or how well not) the Emergent leaders understand contemporary culture.

Let me emphasize again that DA Carson opens with comments on the diversity of the Emergent movement, and so any comments that “this doesn’t apply to us” is not fair to him. He speaks to four weaknesses in its cultural analysis of modernism: first, its tendency toward reductionism (which may or may not be similar to his admitted need at times to “generalize”); second, condemnation of confessional Christianity; third, some theological shallowness and intellectual incoherence; and fourth, a particularization of the above three.

Here’s his big point: “Modernism seeks rational certainty and therefore veers toward absolutism, because it has refused to recognize the essential perspectivalism in all human knowing” (p. 57). Because modernism is behind us, even evangelism has shifted from its previous mode (and here he uses McLaren as an example).

1.0 Emergent analysis of Modernity

Let’s look at each briefly because this is a long chapter (pp. 57-86). The analysis tends to the reductionistic when it comes to modernism and how Christianity expressed itself in modernity: it is not just linear thinking and the rational. History is not this neat, DA Carson contends. This distorts modernism and, because the Emergents root theology and praxis in this distortion, it really matters what Emergents think of modernity because they think confessional Christianity expresses that modernism. At this point there is a lengthy set of prayers from CH Spurgeon, which DA Carson thinks demonstrate the holistic approach and the relational approach that was not characteristic of Modernity but is to be found in the Emergents (and this from a Modernist pastor – though I must wonder if the “Puritan out of his time” can count as a Modernist, and my reading of the Emergents is that they are not responding to Spurgeon, and I even wonder if many even know who he was or have read much of him). He then appeals to JI Packer, and a conversation he had with Packer, and then suggests that the “either/or” approach – spirituality or doctrine – doesn’t apply to Packer either. He also appeals to JG Machen. In other words, has the Emergent movement distorted the Christian faith and praxis of the modernistic period?

Second, he finds in the critique of culture an “almost” universal condemnation of confessional Christianity. This is part of his earlier evaluation that the Emergent movement is a “protest” movement. Here he critiques McLaren’s famous “Neo” for damning the good with faint praise, for always leaning toward the story-form vs. the systemic form, and for never giving any credit to modernism or the Christian faith of that era. In sum, there is an imbalance. DA Carson, and I fear that some will miss this, then admits that there is an imbalance at times in the Christian faith of modernity. (Why Carson says he can think “of only three or four African preachers who can expound Romans well” is beyond me. This is bad writing, and he is simply making a point: Africans tend toward the narrative portions of Scripture.) Grant DA Carson his point: he admits that modernity lended itself toward doctrinal passages, and postmodernity will lend itself to narrative portions. (Very nice section here on his father’s preaching.)

The analysis by Emergents of modernism is theologically shallow and intellectually incoherent. The theological shallowness pertains to any and every system because of the impact of the Fall. [Let me offer a brief rave of my own: I would to God that Calvinistic theology would embrace the implications DA Carson is here speaking of, and an implication that I’m not sure DA Carson follows through on and it is: it boggles that those who preach the most about the noetic impacts of the Fall (our mind is affected) seem to think it has impacted their system the least. I apologize if this sounds terse and out of place, but it is as good a time as any to let this point be made. And, so far as I am reading this book, Carson would admit to it (even if he thinks my pointing at his Calvinism is only one example of what I am saying).] Its incoherence is that it finds too much good in other things and not enough good in the Christian tradition. DA Carson then makes a point I have been making for years in my classes and mention somewhere in “The Jesus Creed,” namely that tolerance is big, bad, bogey word today that has become a billy club used against anything that disagrees with another. He argues that the Emergent folks are tolerant of everything but modernism and its Christian expression. Fair enough.

Finally, he offers a particularization. And again he turns to Brian McLaren and his contention that the evils of our modern age are from absolutism. He offers a critique of McLaren’s view of modernism, and he scorches this careless point of McLaren. (You can read it yourself.)

2.0 Emergent analysis of Postmodernity

Now DA Carson turns to the evaluation of “postmodernity”(this chapter needed some editing up front to make it clear that there was an analysis of modernity then postmodernity). My outline helps out. Still, the point comes through. He agrees in the main with the trends: decline in absolutism, increase in perspectivalism, decrease in confidence in reason and objectivity, and an increase in affectivity and the like. He finds problems with Emergent analysis.

First, postmodernity is a buzz word. Second, too much of social change is lumped into one word. DA Carson suggests distinguishing postmodernism from the “correlatives” of it. Third, postmodernity is becoming passé for in Europe the term is fading from view. Fourth, there is a suggestion that the “age of authenticity” has dawned and this smacks of absolutism. (McLaren again.)

And now DA Carson anticipates his next chapter with some words about “isms.”The alarmist tendencies: if you don’t adapt your church will die. Here’s a quote that must be considered very seriously:

“Of all the Christian writers who explore postmodernism, none are quite so modernist – so absolutist – as the emerging church leaders in their defense of postmodern approaches” (84-85).

For some reason DA Carson does a little sociological guessing himself and suggests that postmodernity appeals to Christians from intensely conservative or fundamentalist pasts. (Not all are from such backgrounds, he admits.) I wasn’t aware he knew all these leaders personally. Does he have sufficient numbers to be talking about “a very high percentage of them”?

#1: I expected more on the Emergent analysis of culture, and got more on Emergent’s critique of the evangelical and confessional faith. Why?

#2: What does it mean to say that Emergent theology is “intellectually incoherent”? Does this mean that it is not “systematic” or “systemic” but is instead “narrative” or “story” or “encounter in form”?

#3: Is the use of “postmodernity” too much of a buzz word, too easy to use, to use to use as a “trump card” of victory for the Emergent movement? Has the Emergent movement used too many simplistic definitions and so distorted the discussion? Has DA Carson adequately characterized modernity and postmodernity?

#4: Is DA Carson too attached to Brian McLaren’s voice in the Emergent crowd and missing other voices? Who might these be? And what difference would it make if he had worked on other Emergent voices?

This is a very serious chapter, and one that needs some careful ears and some patient thinking. I will not let myself here run into a dialogue with DA Carson at this point for fear of running into many, many pages.

Tomorrow is the Lord’s Day: let us pra
y for one another in the spirit of the communion of the saints.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/7326767 Daniel

    I loved what you said about Calvinistic theology and hermeneutics. This was very frustrating as I was reading John MacArthur’s book “Hard to Believe.” He sounded so arrogant as he criticized seeker-friendly churches for not interpreting Scripture right and for failing to understand human depravity. I thought if you really believe that the fall has had the much of an impact on us, shouldn’t you approach the text with a little more humility? Why are they the exception to the true when it comes to total depravity?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3452528 Bob Robinson

    Your question number 2 resonates with me–It seems that “intellectually incoherent” for Carson means that it does not line up with Descartian ways of thinking.When someone challenges that or foundationalism, does Carson simply whip out the “Your Being Intellectually Incoherent” Card?That’s what he seems to do to Stan Grenz in his previous treatments of Grenz’s beyond foundationalism ideas.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3464946 Bill

    “He argues that the Emergent folks are tolerant of everything but modernism and its Christian expression. Fair enough.”This is quite possibly a great critique we could learn from. I don’t think EC people are very good at pointing out what has been positive about Christianity in the Modern period.

  • Anonymous

    Modernity- again, thinking emergers will recognize good things about modernity. I’ve read some of them expressed by McLaren, Sweet and others. I don’t think they’re trying to distort anything, only bring into the light some shortcomings of modernity they perceive because of their interactions with people a) who are believers but frustrated by those shortcomings and b) who are not believers and find many of the modernist-rationalist-mechanistic “biblical” answers to be irrelevant or insulting or both. It’s not the “confessions” of Christianity that are the problem- it’s unloving actions by Christians who are “doctrinally correct” (choose your doctrine). Doctrine isn’t bad, and neither is narrative. Recognizing that processing the implications of stories actually produces more changed behavior than “factual knowledge” isn’t something that began with emergers. Perhaps an emphasis on narrative is a long-needed corrective. “Not having correct doctrine” has been a billy club too, for at least 1900 years. (This is what turns me off about Eastern Orthodoxy- if you aren’t one, you aren’t a real Christian. Of course, this very thing is what attracts many…) If McLaren is sloppy, and if he really is emergent, he will be grateful to have it pointed out respectfully and will do some further thinking.Postmodernity- again, thinking emergents will readily say that PM in itself is indeed a buzz word and is not the answer either. I have asked myself how the world/my culture is being affected for good because of Christian absolutism. It will be affected by Christians, and Christians are responsible for much public good since Jesus. Of course, the full answer to this cannot be completely known until we are all before the Lord- but Barna has some interesting statistics.The emerging thing is still a big soup with lots of flavors, and emergers do not consider this much of a problem. I have read McLaren’s open letter to Ch. Colson (has DAC?), and McL’s explanations and perceptions about PM were very clear. DAC’s Christian numbers are incomplete if he does not take Britain into account, where emerging church types of things have been going on for nigh unto 20 years, across denominations.Q1- I suspect because DAC knows how to do the one better than the other. Q2- maybe. I would like to know DAC’s definition of “coherence”.Q3a- likely. b- probably overall.Q4 sounds like it. See remark about Britain, and also at least the rest of the English-speaking world and continental Europe. Third world seems to be different.Dana Ames

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/1883453 Jeremy Pierce

    I think Carson has demonstrated the he is sensitive to the point about Calvinists who think their system is immune to the charge they level against others. His work on assurance insists that the Calvinist system too often leads people to read the Hebrews passages on falling away as if there’s no urgency, as if the hypothetical case being considered is one that’s not really possible. He says that doesn’t fit with the tone of the passage.Another example is limited atonement. The system leads some to deny the face value of clear statements in scripture that Christ died for all and not just the elect, that God really does desire for all to repent. Carson says you need a more sophisticated approach to make sense of both kinds of statements in scripture, and a number of historic Calvinists agree with him, but many follow their system to where they think it leads, even if it conflicts with the plain sense of scripture.Bob: You’re a pretty poor interpreter of Carson if you think he’s a Cartesian modernist. He’s spent much time explaining how he’s not. It’s all through The Gagging of God and his lectures on postmodernism, and I’m sure it’s going to be all through this book too. Something is intellectually incoherent if it contradicts itself. You don’t have to be a foundationalist to think contradictions are bad. In my experience, those who classify themselves as postmodern and emergentist really do misunderstand those they criticize and caricature them. I haven’t read a word of Carson on the emergent church, but if he’s saying this then it fits with what I’ve seen.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3452528 Bob Robinson

    Jeremy,Thanks for the heads-up. I was asking a question, seeking an answer, not stating as fact what I thought Carson is or is not.Your comment made me pull Gagging of God back off my shelf, and re-read Carson’s review of Grenz’s book from Modern Reformation.Your right. Thanks.

  • Winston

    I don’t think that doctrine and narrative are necessarily dichotomous. Infact the former derives from the latter. As I understand it narrative is dynamic and doctrine relatively static until distillations provide further commonly agreed insights that either augment or alter previous statements. So what the emergents are involved now in the narrative may become doctrinnaire in the future and then the ‘tables will turn on them’ as they now seem to turn on the moderns. What goes around comes around eventually. So from my point of view we should all be humble as it is received wisdom that we get from the heavenly Father and we only see darkly even as we see more fully as we grow. Please correct me if I am wrong as I am pretty new at this.


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