DA Carson and the Emergent Movement, Part 2

DA Carson and the Emergent Movement, Part 2 April 16, 2005

I didn’t think I’d get to a second part until tomorrow, but I just got the book for review, so here we go.

In this second installment we will look briefly at what DA Carson says positively about the Emergent movement. I am sad to say that I’ve seen some bloggers jump on his case before they have listened to him, and they are doing just what they are accusing him of doing. Whether or not some Emergent folk think Carson has listened to them is not the point; the point is to listen to him. (As I am writing this I got a paper copy for review. So, now I’m going on my own read.)

DA Carson finds some positive features in the Emergent movement and he sees five features that are commendable, even though from what I see he doesn’t expound these five features by showing what and how this takes place among the Emergent leaders. In fact, this section comes off as a backhanded compliment. Ten pages of compliments, no genuine citations of their writings and how they do these things, and then the rest of the book a pretty stiff critique. I say this only because it is true (and authentic): it appears to me that this is cursory affirmation because that is how one is supposed to treat an opponent.

First, they “read the times” and by this he refers to how they are concerned with understanding culture. Second, there is a push for authenticity among the Emergent folk. Third, there is a genuine perception of our own – whoever we might be and wherever we might be – social placement in the world and how that shapes our gospel understanding and mission. Fourth, evangelism is important or reaching our modern culture. Fifth, if I understand what I am hearing, DA Carson sees another good thing in the Emergent concern with historic Christian traditions. He concludes the chapter by showing that other churches are doing similar good things – and this comes off (to me) as a bit of churlish behavior. Do the Emergent think they are the only ones? (If they do. and forgive me DA if I’m wrong here, then they need this reminder. If not, why close down this chapter by affirming other traditions for what is good about the Emergent?)

If this is what Carson sees in the Emergent Church, I think he sees some good things. I’m wondering if this is all he sees – is there no good in their commitment to “community”? to issues of the Bible that are not held by some evangelicals to be part of the gospel – like social justice and the environment and business? what of their courage “to start all over if they have to”?


#1: Has DA Carson given the Emergent leaders the nuance they deserve on how they read the times? McLaren, for instance, has a pretty sophisticated (at times) understanding of some things and he differs from others in significant ways.

#2: What does “authenticity” mean for the Emergent folk? The Willow model has for years been keen on the word authentic and by this they mean the leaders have to stand up and take their medicine when they have done wrong (and many sermons have such illustrations – Hybels and the whole gang), but is this what Emergent is talking about? My understanding of the Emergent is that “authentic” refers more to the human condition, an almost Augustinian sense of humans being flawed and everything about them is flawed. If this is the case, we have to ask if Carson’s perception here is genuinely an Emergent understanding of authentic.

#3: What role does our own particularism play both in understanding the gospel and fleshing out the gospel? Huge, huge question, and I think at the heart of much of the Emergent. In other words, is the Emergent movement every bit as much an “ecclesiology” as it is an “epistemology”? Further conversations with my source will help me see what DA Carson sees here. Most of what I’ve seen so far focuses exclusively on the philosophical epistemological question, though. We’ll see.

#4: I have been impressed of late with what the Emergent movement means by “evangelism,” and I’m quite sure here that different groups have different understandings. Some, of course, see it as the old gospel shaped for postmoderns but others have shifted the paradigm dramatically (Doug Pagitt, for example). So, the question becomes, What is evangelism for the Emergent? Here this one: is it discerning what God is doing in the world and “joining in” and “saying Amen” and “working with God”? Or is it gospel preaching to postmoderns? Big, big questions here.

#5: I’ve heard a bundle over the last two years about the Emergent concern with the classical traditions, including especially Eastern Orthodoxy. What I have wondered, and many will perhaps know more than I, is whether this is the result of trying to figure out how the 2d and 3d century churches “embodied” the gospel in their day so we might learn how to “embody” it in our day? Or, is it a genuine turn to the classical traditions in order to find a more authentic display of the gospel? I’m not sure if DA Carson talks about this.

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  • “If this is what Carson sees in the Emergent Church, I think he sees some good things. I’m wondering if this is all he sees – is there no good in their commitment to “community”? to issues of the Bible that are not held by some evangelicals to be part of the gospel – like social justice and the environment and business? what of their courage “to start all over if they have to”?”The irony here, if you’re reading correctly (and I think your caveat is a good one), is that if he’s failing to address issues like commitment to community and social justice then I wonder how much of the conversation he’s missing. It would seem like a significant amount, perhaps the most important parts even. Here’s where your concern that interaction with published material doesn’t do justice to much of the conversation comes to the fore. These issues are less things that are published (although they are certainly present) and more that are done. I think they show up in exactly the places you’ve mentioned – blogs and churches.I’m looking forward to your discussion.

  • I second ScottB’s assessment. (I’m looking forward to reading the book…my comments are based on only having listened to the Cedarville lectures–as are many other bloggers’ comments…In other words, we have listened to Carson, on CD, and have been dissapointed).I am concerned that Carson indeed just gives the “cursory affirmation because that is how one is supposed to treat an opponent.”While listening to the lectures, I was wishing for more on the “postive” side of the ledger. It seemed like he was more interested in tearing down some straw men that he had conjured up rather than really engaging those in Emergent. Hope the book is better than the lectures.

  • If the primary thrust of the book is critique, it’s not all that surprising that he doesn’t gush all over EC and then issue a few minor suggestions… sometimes the phrase, “my learned colleague” when used in a debate just doesn’t sound like a compliment at all. Could be that’s the kind of compliments Carson offers, but I think as Scot suggests we need to listen to hear the critique. Sounds like there’s a lot of listening to do…I haven’t got the book yet, haven’t even ordered it… but I’d like to at some point. I have a bit of a backlog on the reading shelf right now, but I have decided one thing, anyway: Scot, I knew your name more from your commentaries and the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, but I was not really familiar with The Jesus Creed at all, until following a link or two from the conversation on Bob’s blog. After giving it a further look, I think I’ll want to put my hands on a copy and slide it into the reading pile ahead of a few others, including Carson’s. To be honest, that subject material simply strikes a chord more than I expect the debate with conservative evangelicalism will.Anyway, appreciate this second installment. If there’s any way that we as EC bloggers can assist the conversation, just say the word. I see another 5 questions here, after I just interacted with 4 this morning and am already rethinking the answer to one of them!Gratia vobis et pax,Brother Maynard

  • Is it possible that he doesn’t see “social justice and the environment” as positive or noteworthy aspects of any movement?

  • Bill,If you mean DA Carson by “he” I think he would not agree with that all.

  • Anonymous

    Q2- For myself, authenticity would be coming to terms with one’s humanity as fully as is possible, and living in radical honesty, not only before God, as you wrote in an earlier post, but before other humans as well. This is the hardest thing to do in life. It can only be done if we are safe in love- God’s and also peoples’. Becoming authentic involves trusting that God’s universe is a safe place (Willard) in which (at least) to become that kind of honest person through and through. The truth (alethea- being “uncovered”) does indeed set one free.Q3- yes, and from what you write it seems that DAC has not engaged with this aspect.Q5- I suspect the latter rather than the former.

  • Anonymous

    Whoops, forgot to sign the above-Dana Ames