DA Carson and the Emergent Movement

DA Carson and the Emergent Movement April 16, 2005

As I told Andrew Jones in my blog at his site, I am a former colleague of DA Carson’s at TEDS; I had the office next to his for years; he is my friend; I consider him an expert; I do not have the book but I am in contact with those who know what is in it. I can sketch here only the briefest summaries of what is there, and I am encouraging everyone to buy it. And I am encouraging everyone to read it carefully; avoid reactionary responses and listen to this most careful of scholar. I expect all of us to learn from him.

I’ll be posting several blogs about this topic.

Before we can even begin to discuss the proposals and evaluations of DA Carson in his must-read forthcoming book, we have to observe that “defining our terms” is both fundamental and (at the same time) extremely difficult. For instance, what does “emergent” mean? Will we use it for Robert Webber’s form, Brian McLaren’s form of the Emergent, Doug Pagitt’s form, Steve Chalke’s form, Andrew Jones’ form, the Willow Axis form, or will it be for the many, many who have adapted the Emergent label and are using its ideas in rather normal churches? What has to be admitted up front is that Emergent is not a “fixed” or “reified” Object that can be described the way one can describe Wrigley Field or the Lincoln Tomb or the White House.

DA Carson has himself for a long time been involved in trying to get the term “Evangelical” more “accurately” defined (footnotes deleted) as he and other theologians have sought to find that powerful connection of the Reformed Churches from Calvin to Jonathan Edwards to more 20th Century forms of that theology. But, others have fought hard to maintain a looser, sometimes calling it a more “sociological,” definition. And one thinks here of Don Dayton (who thinks it embraces the Wesleyan movement) or others who think it is even much wider than that (as can be seen in Randy Balmer’s romp through the churches, in his “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”).

So, let’s issue this up front: it is not going to be easy to define Emergent, and so when one gets into this discussion, it is best if one recognizes one is defining and responding to, if I may be so bold to adapt an expression from Hemingway, “A Moveable Feast.”

On top of that, it just so happens that Emergent work is done in the trenches and not in books and journal articles: you learn about the Emergent by talking to its leaders and its people, by reading its bloggers, by attending its conferences and conventions, and by attending its churches. Over and over I’ve been told this: “Scot, you can’t read this stuff in some book. No one has put it all together. You have to get on the internet and attend the churches.”

Now to DA Carson… who is singularly qualified to get into this issue because of his biblical expertise and his previous examination of pluralism, “The Gagging of God.”

DA Carson says this book is rooted in the lectures he gave at Cedarville in February 2004. He thinks a self-identity has been established in the Emergent movement and he says that he will have to generalize to move the discussion forward. The Emergent movement recognizes that culture has shifted and that a new church is “emerging.” DA Carson admits the variety and boundary-shifting ambiguity of the Emergent movement.

He sees the following characteristics of the Emergent Movement: (1) protest and he describes the story of Spencer Burke with his problems with spiritual McCarthyism, (2) protest against the modern and here he will show that postmodernism, while open to various meanings, is essentially discontinuous with modernism and is an epistemology that is anti-foundationalist, (3) protesting on three fronts – not just evangelicalism and modernism but also the seeker-sensitive church.


#1: Does “emerging” refer to the postmodern culture in all its varieties, or to the church hat accompanies that shift in culture, or to the ideas that are part of that culture, or to the gospel that responds to that culture, or to the gospel taking shape in a new way in a new cultural paradigm? The answer to this question matters immensely. And I’m not sure DA Carson, or even some of the Emergent folk, are all pointing at the same “thing” when they speak of “emerging”.

#2: Is the “emerging” movement fundamental a church of protest? And, if so, is the primary target of the protest evangelicalism? What are its targets?

#3: Is the postmodernist epistemology of the Emerging folks (and one should not simply equate postmodernists and the Emergent folks) essentially affectional over against rational? inclusive vs. exclusivist? authentic vs. the absolute? is social history more significant that the history of ideas?

#4: Is “emergent” or “integral” thinking superior to traditional absolutist rational thinking?

#5: Has the Emergent movement understood culture accurately? Does it appeal to Scripture accurately?

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  • Scott, I’m very much looking forward to reading what’s coming up here. I’m not in the Calvinist tradition, but as a young-ish pastor of a young-ish church plant (ages 30 and 4.5 respectively) I find myself in the middle of the conversation. Thank you for helping to move the conversation forward!

  • Excellent opener, Scot. I interact with your four questions in brief in this blog post – but these are just some opening thoughts.Thanks for taking up this role in the conversation – I’m looking forward to more as we all get ahold of Carson’s book and consider what he has to say about EC.Oh, and I love the image of the “Movable Feast”!Gratia vobis et pax,Brother Maynard

  • scot . . . good questions. I would add another in the same vein:how does the American expression of Emergent church (and related criticism) differ from expressions around the western world, and should we be having country-specific conversations before comparing notes?

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  • Scot,Thanks for your willingness to intentionally placing feet in both worlds in an attempt to make sense of all this.I look forward to your thoughts as they develop.I interact with your 5 questions at vanguardchurch.

  • Why I’m doing this, I don’t know, but here goes. I come at this, first of all, as one deeply enmeshed in the “emerging” phenomenon (I still refuse to call it a “movement”), and as one who is not and never has been in the particular camp that many of you have, and Carson is. I think you’ll find that I am not alone, nor even perhaps a minority, in this among emerging folk.So, I do wonder why we want to fight so hard to get this guy’s attention and correct his view. I suppose I basically understand why some want to, but I wonder if it is a misuse of energy.I’m all for proper definitions of terms. I know many think that’s not fruitful, but I think it’s good and helpful in order to move on in any discussion. Connected to that, I’ll say it’s already problematic that you start out calling this whole thing “Emergent” – with a capital “E” – which is an organization and not quite, even by their own admission, the be all and end all of the emerging “thing.” And then to call “it” the “Emergent Movement” is to go on too far into that way of thinking about it – to assume things about all of us which will not fit. It’s not nearly like neat puzzle pieces that will go together without effort.I’ll close out by saying (again) that to go into this with the assumption (that some in the emerging conversation even have) that this whole phenomenon can be traced to the “Postmodern Culture Shift” is, I think, a mistake. It may be connected, but is not nearly all there is to it. Carson seems to have made this mistake in critiquing it, I’d hate for any of us to make that same mistake in talking back to him, if that’s what someone’s going to do. That’s my 7.5 cents. Peace be with you.

  • i will admit that i come to this table without knowing carson – being a drew grad, i walked in a different world – and i have never claimed a “evangelical” root 🙂 but i wonder, while the questions you ask are good – can they ever be answered? and, do they need to be? as a person active in the emerging conversation i am not sure that we could ever answer the questions to the satisfaction of the evangelical movement – it is hard for evangelicals to grab hold of a fluid reality – because if it can not be named, defined, and placed into a box the evangelical church finds it hard to deal with – but then, that is my opinion :)i think what i find so “insulting” about what carson is doing (and what others have done) is that he is speaking against us, without knowing us – and i find that harsh, but par 🙂

  • Alan,The issue is not so much “getting his approval” but responding to criticisms he has made of the movement to test their viability.On “Emergent” as a capital, and on “movement”, the terms are his and they are common enough in the conversation to be acceptable. McLaren, for instance, likes the word “conversation” — but even that seems to describe what it does and not what it is. Semantics aside, we need something on the table in order to know what we are talking about.But, friend, everyone speaking in leadership will say that the Emergent Movement (in all respect to your comment about terms) is an issue because of the cultural shift, a shift usually called postmodernity — though even that has some who would prefer other terms.Thanks for your comments.

  • John O’Keefe,Thanks for the comments.The questions are difficult to answer but come out of Carson’s book.

  • Those of us who in any way identify with Emergent or emerging church are going to have to be extremely patient and long suffering. I think this kind of discussion needs to take place but as you credit Carson for saying, some generalizations will have to be made simply to move forward.I am one of those who thinks ’emerging church’ is best understood sociologically but I’m content to let Carson address primarily what he sees in Emergent as they are likely to be, for better or for worse, the most visible entity to engage with.Scot, thank you for investing time in this. You are in unique position relationally, one that is probably critical to the success of this discourse.

  • Scot, Thanks again for these posts.To answer your first question here on your blog site:This is an EXCELLENT question. When I read the blogs represented on “Planet Emergent” and elsewhere, I have difficulty always knowing what the blogger means by his or her being “emerging.” I know what I mean: The gospel taking shape in a new way in a new cultural paradigm. But many are more concerned with the other varieties of “emerging” that you identify. This equivocation on what we all mean by “emerging” does make the discussion that much more muddied.

  • Thanks for the reply Scot. I do understand wanting to answer criticism. I do so myself. Not that it doesn’t get me into trouble from time to time. I suppose, though, that if staying out of “trouble” were my goal, I’d go to Seminary and get me a job as a Pastor.I wonder who the “leadership” is that you referred to about the postmodernism thing. I’m speaking from a place of “leadership” in this phenomenon/conversation as well, and while I do recognize the pomo cultural elements (having an Anthropology background) I still have a problem when this entire deal is attributed to that shift. I think it’s short-sighted. Not sure if you’ve read what I wrote a little while back about this or not, but it may explain where I’m coming from – check it out here if you like.Thanks again and hopefully what you say will cause someone to look at least more fairly at what’s going on, while I have my doubts that it will. Peace to you.

  • Anonymous

    I decided to make some comments, not to defend, but hopefully to expand, and to help my own thinking. (I think we would have much in common, and you seem like a sympathetic person- in the fullest definition.)I spoke to the protest aspect above in a later post but earlier in time. Q1- Not PM culture in all its varieties, but probably all the others, and maybe more.Q3- You list some dualities. I think the thinking emergers would say either/or” is not the point. “Both/and” is. Not synthesis- more like ying/yang.Q4- Again, superiority isn’t the point- understanding is. Both/and.Q5- a) sometimes, maybe mostly.b) What do you mean by “accurate”? (The question part of the point.)Dana Ames

  • Dana,Good comments; these are questions that emerge from DA Carson’s book and that you have answered as I think many Emergents would.

  • Ironic! I’ve been reviewing “Gagging of God” on my blog…

  • I wonder if insteads of viewing it as a authenic vs. absolute it might be important to to call the emerging movement ” authenically absolute”

  • impleri » Archives » “Emergent”

    […] These questions arise from Scot McKnight’s blog (link). i’d much like to discuss them over the next few days/weeks as they are vital to further discussions dealing with theology in a postmodern context. For now, i will just leave the questions with any commentary/response from me: […]