In the spirit of Scot McKnight, I publish this very thoughtful email that I received yesterday. I reprint it with permission, and anonymously.
Hey, Tony. I stumbled across your blog this morning.
The Wheaton post is fascinating.
I do find it continually surprising to note how persons embedded in large social structures—whether they be referred to as political, economic, or religious—are, more often than not, incognizant of the actual history of social causation involved in the formation of the structures.
As you indicate in your post, the vicissitudes are at the very least apparent and perhaps actual in many cases. Such is the ambiguity of trying to analyze social causation. I do think that this kind of recognition is the cause of many headaches; in my opinion, these are good headaches to experience, because they invite a kind of dazzled wonder at the complex relationships between human history and God’s action within history (including his ability to act despite human foibles, many of which historically have been labeled as “orthodox”!).
This attitude of dazzled wonder, however, does not sit well with strong dogmatism, and strong dogmatism is often associated with undisclosed and perhaps even sub rosa commitments to something like Cartesian certainty as criterial for either knowledge or even for responsible believing. Obviously, I think this is a mistake, but I do think that it’s a fairly ubiquitous assumption that is articulated at least in one way by the ferocious commitments to a doctrine of inerrancy. It’s interesting to see something like that being extended to whatever authorities in the church are taken to be the correct interpreters of Scripture. To the degree that they handle Scripture rightly, they inherit a kind of inerrancy and the authority that is attached to that (cf. B.B. Warfield).
I think at least these two things (i.e., (a) this kind of commitment in the paragraph immediately above and (b) the compartmentalizing of the various social forces that actually played a role in the formation of structures such as religious groups, schools of interpretation, and the victorious councils) combine with a third commitment, namely, what I’ll call the “theological high road,” which asserts something like God is in control of all that. The trick is that “all that” is left totally unspecified and largely unexamined. So, it’s incredibly easy to agree with that proposition since there isn’t a whole lot of conceptual depth to the content, especially if one has already epistemically ceded one’s believings and criteria for responsible believing to the chosen authority, whatever it might be. I think this makes it really easy to sanitize one’s view of the vicissitudes (isn’t that a great word?) involved in any activity under the sun that involves divine action.
Challenging this is tantamount to challenging existentially deep commitments that maintain a type of status quo that is comfortable for those defined within the status quo as “orthodox,” which, if one even merely considers the lexical meaning of the term, is all about epistemology. It is ironic that the very meaning of “orthodox,” that should invite perennial conversations about epistemology (though not necessarily using that particular term of art) has the practical effect, at least today, of shutting down those kinds of more interesting conversations.
Hence the reactions you and others in the stream may provoke…
I do think that you and others in the stream will have to work harder on distinguishing (i) the kinds of conversations you would like to see in the contemporary religious scene and (ii) mere historicizing of the Christian story in such a way that denies its distinctiveness.
(Whether distinctiveness implies (soteriological) exclusivity is an entirely different discussion that is also subject to conflation.)
I think the worry that critics have is that (i) may collapse into (ii), and the less careful critics probably already just assume that (i) and (ii) have been conflated in the work of the emergents/emerging.