Society for Pentecostal Studies Paper: Definitions

Getting one’s arms around the emergent church is no mean feat – indeed, I believe that the same may be said about Pentecostalism.  In a sense, the genesis of the emergent movement was the disenfranchisement of GenX evangelicals in the 1990s.  But in another sense, of course, the Bride of Christ is always emerging.  It is, as Brian McLaren has written, better referred to as “the church emerging” than “the emerging church.”

Further, those of us involved in the emergence Christianity have a particular antipathy toward rubrics, labels, and categorizations.  They seem to us convenient ways of boxing someone in, which all too often leads to writing someone off.

Please allow me a tangent: Was Thomas Aquinas a “liberal” or a “conservative”?  Well, we might at first paint him a conservative, for he rescued orthodox Christianity from a particularly stagnant period by recovering – i.e., conserving – scripture and tradition.  But how did he do that?  By entering into a thoroughgoing dialogue with the Aristotelian philosophy of medieval Islam.  I daresay that if a theologian today were to admit that he or she was dipping into the wells of Muslim philosophy in order undergird Christian theology, that theologian would be condemned as having slipped off the slippery slope.

My point is that the question, Was Thomas a conservative or a liberal? is nonsensical, because “liberalism” and “conservatism” are modern categories, linked to modern (read, analytic) philosophical presuppositions.  If I can make the point even more strongly, they are not theological categories.  Thomas was not a liberal or a conservative, Paul was not a liberal or a conservative, Jesus was not a liberal or a conservative.  And, if I may be so bold, I am not a liberal or a conservative.  Those non-theological categories become less helpful each day.  I suggest we stop using them.  OK, end of tangent.

Further still, I have already used several terms in this essay: emerging church, emergent church, emergence Christianity, emerging movement, the church emerging.  The lack of consensus on terminology betokens both the youth and the fluidity of the movement.  Imagine, if you will, that you were at the Azusa Street Mission in 1906, and in 1916 you were asked to address a guild of Presbyterian scholars and give them some sort of definitive description of your nascent movement, and you might be able to understand my reticence.

But, alas, define we must.  The most oft-quoted definition of  the movement come from Fuller Seminary professors, Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, who write, “Emerging Churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures.”[1] Scot McKnight, who authors the highly influential blog, The Jesus Creed, finds Gibbs and Bolger’s definition too broad, as do I, and thus McKnight specifies it further: “Emerging churches are missional communities emerging in postmodern culture and consisting of followers of Jesus seeking to be faithful to the orthodox Christian faith in their place and time.”[2]


[1] Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005), 44.

[2] Scot McKnight, “Blogossary,”  http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2006/11/bloglossary.html.

  • http://cuyahogavalleychurch.blogspot.com/ Rick Duncan

    Thanks Tony. You’re making us think.

    I like McKnight’s definition: “Emerging churches are missional communities emerging in postmodern culture and consisting of followers of Jesus seeking to be faithful to the orthodox Christian faith in their place and time.”

    But if you are seeking to apply this only to the 20 or 30 somethings of today, then I think that’s a function of what might be called “young adult swagger.”

    As you imply, the term “postmodern” is exceedingly difficult to define. I have yet to see any consistent definition. In fact, the ideals of postmodernism make making a definition virtully impossible for the true postmodern. As you know, postmodern thought says that each individual’s definition is equally valid. So, how can one even have a conversation in light of that idea?

    I believe that if one takes the word “postmodern” out of McKnight’s definition above, then we have a good definition of the mission of the true church in every age since the 1st Century.

    God has always raised up His church for every generation. In a sense, the church has always been emergent and reemergent ever since Pentecost/Acts 2.

    The true emergent church guru is none other than Christ Jesus Himself. This means that today, young adult swaggar as well as Boomer hubris must bow the knee to Christ.

    Maybe we should just seek His grace to follow Him as best we can and quit all this ridiculous generational oneupmanship.

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  • http://returntosimplicity.com samthemacman

    The only problem with either definition of emergence Christianity, be it Gibb’s and Bolger’s or McKnight’s is that just as labels “pigeon hole” people, the term “orthodox Christianity” can mean many things to many people, and may even contain tenets of belief that would not be viewed as orthodox by certain people even within “orthodoxy”. Thus we have and we will always struggle with our use of words, categories, etymological terms, as the more we try to define some things, the more can bring confusion.

    By the way, I like your new book.

  • hans

    No need to apologize for your Thomist tangent, I like it. Although, can we really understand Aquinas as “dipping into the wells of Muslim philosophy,” or rather is it “Greek philosophy preserved by Islam?” … doesn’t matter, that is beside the point.

    Your point, I believe (and it is a good one), is more that Aquinas rises above these narrow categories. I was asked on my phd comprehensive exam whether Aquinas was a rationalist or a fideist (the answer sought was, of course, that he was neither, but rather he achieved an inner harmony, a via media between/beyond those labels and others: dogmatism vs. skepticism, etc.). Perhaps this was unique to Aquinas, but I don’t think so. I’ve recognized this in the Thomists who have followed him (Maritain, Gilson, etc.) – and others of course…

    Anyway, to your point, Merton says something like this (and I’ll paraphrase him) about “one of the rare and admirable virtues [of a healthy theology] that is able to rise above the petty differences of schools and systems (labels, rubrics, categories) and see philosophy/theology in its wholeness (e.g. reconciling Aristotle with scripture and revelation), in its variegated unity, and in its true [universality] (c/Catholicity) … [the ability to] study Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus side by side, and to see them as complementing and reinforcing one another, as throwing diverse and individual light on the same truths from different points of view, and thus avoid the evil of narrowing and restricting (c/Catholic) philosophy and theology to a single school, to a single attitude, a single system …” (Merton, 7-Story-Mt, 241)

    You state, “I daresay that if a theologian today were to admit that he or she was dipping into the wells of Muslim philosophy in order undergird Christian theology, that theologian would be condemned as having slipped off the slippery slope.” I would hope this is not the case, that is, I would hope that such a thinker would not be ‘condemned’ right off, but, at the very least, praised for the effort.

    I am by no means an expert in Pentecostalism nor “the disenfranchised GenX evangelical” emerging church movement (I know very little of the two), but I reckon perhaps you are striking at something similar to what Merton had in mind, only you might be doing so with the protestant branches in mind (and perhaps broader still).

    Thank you for the post. I do not make it to blogs very often, but I am slowly learning about the medium (blogs, twitter, etc) and the emergent movement.


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