DA Carson and the Emergent Movement, Part 5

We now turn to chapter 5 of DA Carson’s book on the Emerging church. Patient listening is required, and that means patient sorting out of his argument and points, if we are to hear what is being said. I make no apologize for trotting out his case for the simple reason that we have to know what he is saying before any kind of reasonable response can be put forth.

When I am done sorting out his case at the end of the week, I will offer my own general reflections on this debate in a separate statement, but first we owe our brother the respect of listening.

In this chapter, DA Carson looks at the Emerging Church critique of PM (= postmodernism). Once again, DA Carson opens up with observations of the diversity of the Emergent Church. “It vehemently denounces modernism, but offers nothing very penetrating when it comes to postmodernism. In particular, it has wrestled unconvincingly with the related matters of truth, certainty, historical witness, and even with the nature of the gospel itself” (125). This leads DA Carson to interact with the Emergent Church’s understanding of truth.

Five problems are seen:

A failure to come to terms with the importance of non-omniscient truth-claims: Leonard Sweet is used as an example of one who warns that Emergents are not to embrace PM but then he offers little reasons why not to. Then McLaren’s twelve suggestions from “The Church on the Other Side,” but DA Carson observes McLaren fails to address the absurdities of PM. Then Stanley Grenz who asks questions about objectivity, denies their importance, but doesn’t provide a rationale for why he can deny their importance.

A failure to face the tough questions, esp. if they are truth-related: DA Carson addresses this through the issue of evangelism of world religions (and I think it is very important for this one to be on the table). Stan Grenz’s “communitarian” apologetic is stated. McLaren’s adadptation of Bosch is brought out, and again (as for Grenz) the truth-claim issue falls short. “Sadly, I find just about every step of McLaren’s argumentation at this point either factually questionable or frankly manipulative” (135).

A failure to use Scripture as the Norming Norm: DA Carson deals with McLaren’s use of “Tradition” and his appeal to Jon Wilson’s research. Then DA Carson responds: (1) the Emergent movement likes “Tradition” but does not live in any one of the Traditions; (2) the Traditions themselves are not equally valid as they contradict one another at times; (3) both McLaren and Wilson have been unfair to McIntyre who should not be captured in a PM agenda. John R. Francke’s appeal to Hans Frei is also criticized: narrative has its place, but only if behind that narrative there is Truth to make the narrative true.

A failure to handle “becoming” and “belonging” tensions in a biblically faithful way: belonging precedes becoming for the Emergents. But, (1) the NT shows the Church to be a distinctive community where “in” and “out” matters; (2) he counters Burke’s cavalier treatment of the Lord’s Supper passage in 1 Cor 11:29; (3) the NT emphasis on teaching and doctrine needs to be part of the “personal” emphasis and he has a brief summary of creeds, though why he appeals to Luke Johnson’s bad book on creeds is beyond me; (4) what is the relationship between “becoming” and “belonging”? DA Carson suggests that it is a tension, a healthy one in which both are important. (5) Sectarianism, even though it seems to be the opposite of the Emergent, is actually one of its characteristics when it appeals so often to those who don’t catch onto the PM wave will be left behind (but not with Tim Lahaye!).

A failure to handle facts, both exegetical and historical, in a responsible way: a very short section, and one that will fascinate many in the Emergent movement because they will contend that DA Carson has done the same with respect to them. Give him his point: is it accurate of the Emergent folks? He speaks here, rather harshly (and he is aware of it being harsh), of a “pattern of distortion” that is so “persistent that after a while it becomes painful to read them” (156). Which leads to tomorrow’s chapter on McLaren and Chalke.

#1: If the Emergent Church is so diverse, it would be helpful if DA Carson sorted out a “taxonomy” of the Emergent Church so we could know which part he is responding to. It appears to me that DA Carson has responded to only one (of maybe four or five) aspects of the Emergent Church, and the one he tackles is the philosophical/theological side. Why not address the whole Emergent Church in all its varieties?

#2: A second question emerges from the first: why does the Emergent Church find it so fundamentally important to begin one’s “theology” at the level of praxis and to move from “mission” to theology? Has DA Carson adequately dealt with this entire missional focus of the Emergent Church? Does his concern for the philosophical/epistemological issue obscure this missional emphasis?

#3: A biggie: what role does the Bible play in the Emergent Church? Is Scripture taken to be the authoritative source for theology and praxis? How is its view of Scripture articulated?

#4: What does the Emergent Church mean by “truth” or by “truth claims” about Jesus Christ and the gospel? (and give me my point: whatever you call it, truth or not, the issue here is to what degree the Emergent Church believes what it believes is the work of God, etc.)

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  • Scot: Your second question is particularly important and may be the key to the incommensurability between Carson and the EC. It seems to me that EC theology *always* moves from praxis to theoria to praxis, in the tradition of Aristotle, Gadamer, and Ricoeur. Carson (and many others) work with a theoria to praxis hermeneutic, thinking it more “objective” or “scientific.”

  • Tony,I suspect you are right here, and it is disappointing that this issue was not taken up in DA Carson, since it seems to me that this is critical to how the Emergent folks are defining the issues.Isn’t the issue also “how do we come to know”? And dont’ the Emergents and PMs often say that we come to know in ways more than just rational thinking?And wouldn’t this be “truth” for the Emergents, too?

  • Thanks for posting such a detailed and thoughtful review. A few thoughts:A failure to use Scripture as the Norming NormI find it strange that Carson would be mentioning Grenze and Franke in the same chapter in which he criticizes the EC of failing to use scripture as “the norming norm.” Perhaps on the practical level he has a point, but Grenz and Franke’s Beyond Foundationalism strongly emphasizes scripture as “the norming norm,” using that exact phrase. If he is disappointed with their treatment of scripture as such, I would be interested to know why.The Emergent movement likes “Tradition” but does not live in any one of the Traditions; (2) the Traditions themselves are not equally valid as they contradict one another at times This is very logical, though: #2 should lead us to #1 – if no one tradition has it all right, why should we remain committed exclusively to just one tradition, instead of taking a more “generous orthodoxy” approach? It seems to me that more of the value of tradition is to be found by examining each of them critically and taking piecemeal what is valuable from each.John R. Franke’s appeal to Hans Frei is also criticized: narrative has its place, but only if behind that narrative there is Truth to make the narrative true.N.T. Wright argues in an early chapter of The New Testament and the People of God for a critical-realist worldview in which narrative must come before whatever we perceive to be absolutes. I would agree that there must be Truth (if I must use a capital T) behind everything, but I don’t think anyone other than God can finally judge whether our narrative corresponds better than any other narrative.