Ben Witherington Doesn’t Get the Emerging Church. Yawn.

Ben Witherington Doesn’t Get the Emerging Church. Yawn. August 17, 2012
Ben WItherington thinks emergents are dumb.

So, Ben Witherington has posted a rant against emerging church rants. Our “anti-ecclesial rhetoric” is gettin’ him down and killin’ his buzz.

After deigning to teach us what the word ekklesia really means, Ben writes,

Thus, when one gets to the emerging church folks, and you hear a lot of their anti-ecclesial rhetoric, it has a long precedent in Protestantism, whether it is Luther railing against the Pope, or Calvin complaining about the situation in Switzerland, or Wesley struggling with the Anglican Church, or the Free Methodists splitting off from the Methodist Episcopal Church or various Baptist groups splitting and multiplying prodigiously. And in all of this, few have stopped to ask—Is all this disputatiousness a good witness to the world? Put another way—Why should the world listen to any church group when we can’t even agree among ourselves, as we speak with forked tongues?

OK, so we’re in league with Luther, Wesley, and Calvin. And the problem is…what, exactly?

It’s “disputatiousness”! That’s our problem!

Of course, Ben seems to miss the irony that his post is the very definition of intramural disputation, being that he spends several hundred words taking his fellow Christians to task. So, wouldn’t that make him part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Further, Professor Witherington owes his employment to one of those aforementioned Reformers. As noted by several commentators, he hasn’t taken his own exhortation to unity to heart or he would — like others have done — convert to Catholicism.

But that’s not all! We’re also dumb!

One more thing. With the anti-ecclesial rhetoric has also come some anti-intellectual, and even anti-educational and anti-seminary rhetoric. Correct me if I am wrong but in a Dark Age where the culture and the church in general is becoming more and more Biblically illiterate what we surely don’t need is less training in the Bible. What we don’t need is a dumbing down of Christian college and seminary core curriculum in Bible, Church History, Theology. What we don’t need is less emphasis on learning the actual languages that the Bible was written in, and learning the historical, literary, rhetorical context in which it was given.

Since Dr. Witherington asked to be corrected, I will:

1) We do not live in a Dark Age. That is a ludicrous claim.

2) I defy him to find one post or podcast by anyone with a link to the emerging church who has suggested a dumbing down of seminary or college curriculum, the dismissal of Greek and Hebrew from syllabi, or a diminishment of the teaching of literary, exegetical methods. In fact, emergents have been rabid autodidacts, studying alone and in groups to fill in the gaps in their own seminary education. I’d imagine that Ben would be thrilled if his former students were half as engaged in ongoing theological study as my emergent friends and I are.

Of course, there’s not a single hyperlink in Ben’s post — not a scintilla of evidence of what he’s accusing us of. It’s all based on rumor, innuendo, and half-truths, something that is beneath a scholar of his stature.

In the comments, he continues his disputatiousness, demanding apologies from commenters who disagree with him. He also tells them that they should read his books. Well, Ben, here’s a little of your own medicine: Read my ecclesiology. It’s called The Church Is Flat. If you find it anti-ecclesial and anti-intellectual, I’ll apologize to you.

If not, you owe me an apology.

"Have you considered professional online editing services like ?"

The Writing Life
"I'm not missing out on anything - it's rather condescending for you to assume that ..."

Is It Time for Christians to ..."
"I really don't understand what you want to say.Your"

Would John Piper Excommunicate His Son?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • You know what I find amusing about this? When I took a few classes via Asbury’s online program, required reading in my “Kingdom, Church, and World” class included a book by an “Emergent” author: “A New Kind of Christian” by Brian McLaren. It was a book/class that was instrumental in helping me through all kinds of questions and doubts that I had and ended up strengthening my faith.

  • I bet he has a book coming out.

  • JoeyS

    I like Witherington, but I think he is wrong here.

    One of my college professors asked a question that I think shows the glaring oversight of BW3 here: How is the Emergent Church applicable to the girl working in the gas station down the road?

    What is implied here is that Emergent Christianity is too intellectual (far from being dumbed down), at least from his perspective. To be honest he wasn’t making claims, rather just asking a question based on his observation.

    Tony, do you think that Emergent Christianity tends towards being over-intellectual? To the point that it may alienate less educated folks?

  • Great response Tony; couldn’t have said it better myself! I would only add that his article is the very reason that Emergent has to exist in the first place. He does nothing but further bolster the emergent position with his “rant”.

  • Where I think he could be getting his idea of the “dumbing down” of seminaries is because we emergings typically *de-emphasize* formal education, instead promoting discipleship for everyone and an equal right of everyone to be heard. It’s a pretty significant difference, but if he’s stuck in a certain defensive posture I can see how he could have gotten from one to the other.

    As for disputatiousness, it depends on the attitude behind the disputing. In my experience, most emergings don’t want to fight for the sake of fighting or division or because we think we’re right and everyone else is wrong – we want to discuss for the sake of greater unity through difference.

  • Oh yes one more thing: are we not being more “ecclesiastical” in attempting to be more “biblical”; and by “biblical” I mean more like what Jesus intends for the church to be.

  • Paul

    Well Said.

  • Mister Tee

    Ben Witherington makes me disputatious. God will judge him for that.

    But then God will forgive him because he’s a merciful God and Ben will repent. But then I will act the Prodigal Son’s brother and dispute with God how he could possibly throw a party with veal.

  • Frank

    Its funny how every one but the emergents do not get the emerging church. Maybe that’s why it’s mostly white privileged people who cannot even decide what they believe. It’s not that emergents talk too intellectually, it that they have nothing transformative to say. No wonder most people are left with a big yawn.

  • Brian P.

    Yawn. Perhaps because I hardly care what Ben thinks, I hardly care what Tony thinks about what Ben thinks.

    If everybody here didn’t care what Brian thinks about what Tony thinks about what Ben thinks, that would be perfectly fine.

    • Treva Whichard

      LOL. Agree!

  • Brad C

    Emergent types are hardly anti-intellectual, it seems just the opposite. Most of the movement stems from the philosophical realization that modernity was “over” and the epistemological structures used to build the modern world and the church are being reconsidered. Ideas like – Radical Individualism, Sufficiency of Language, Omni-competence of human reason and their outcomes – concepts like certainty, objectivity, and absolutism – all being reconsidered. When you listen to the emergent conversation it is discussions like: “What is the church without the concept of Radical Individualism in place?” or “If language doesn’t provide absolute meaning what is the Bible?” etc.

    The hard part is that most denominations and denominational institutions have been built using conceptual structures that are no longer valid – but they can’t let them go. I know it is very hard to let go of understanding that has “given us” meaning and purpose (it has been very hard for me) but it is time to let them go – they just don’t work anymore. It is hard for me to study church history and realize we actually killed folks for believing “incorrectly about Baptism”, etc, etc.

    The emergent movement doesn’t seem anti-intellectual and anti-ecclesial to me – it just smacks into the certainty of the modern world and the institutions trying to preserve the idea.

  • Tony,

    Contrary to your denials, a dumbing-down is ENDEMIC to your stance. You wrote:

    • This fixation with propositions can easily lead to the attempt to use the finite tool of language on an absolute Presence that transcends and embraces finite reality. Languages are culturally constructed symbol systems that enable humans to communicate by designating one finite reality in distinction form another. The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping…and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry. (The New Christians, 234)

    Once you discredit “propositions,” what you term “linguistic grasping,” and “our finite propositional structures,” you are left with only feelings and conversations – a searching but never finding. This equates to a dumbing-down.

    You also wrote on the next page:

    • Giving in to the pressure to petrify the conversation in a ‘statement’ would make Emergent easier to control; its critics could dissect it and then place it in a theological museum alongside other dead conceptual specimens… (235)

    When you disparage “statements” of truth as “dead conceptual specimens,” you are virtually saying that there is nothing worth learning. Hence, you value the search but disdain the possibility of finding any answers.

    • What if “searching” is actually a pursuit of depth, rather than “dumbing down”? It’s a simple recognition of our finitude, while encouraging the journey. This does not mean “there is nothing worth learning,” but, rather, there is always more to be learned.

    • Brad C

      We use language because it works – not because it conveys absolute meaning. I would agree with what Tony wrote about language. I would go even one step further – I think this is evidence of the type of repentance needed. For so many people that call themselves “Christian” God has been reduced to language to be contained. Reduced to propositions written by limited creatures with constrained conceptual ability using a fallible hermeneutic scheme and extremely limited language structures – all the while calling it “truth” and claiming it has “absolute meaning” – from this we must repent.

      Recognition of our limitation is not “dumbing-down” it is simply recognition. We use language because it works. Learning is not worthless – it has just entered a new trajectory – it seems clear that it is a trajectory that many are uncomfortable with.

    • Marshall

      only feelings and conversations – … equates to a dumbing-down.

      As opposed to a making-up?

  • Frank

    Searching and finding a truth which leads to more searching would be depth. Searching and searching without acknowledging a truth is simply folly and thus a dumbing down.

    • JoeyS

      Of course, using caricatures that lack understanding is dumbing down too.

      • Frank

        While it may have evolved to the level of caricature, nothing makes it that far without being truthful. So the costume fits until the emergent church matures. However since its tolling it death knell already it looks like it will die out before that ever happens.

        • I have nothing to gain or lose by paying attention to the “emergent church.” I’m not even a Christian! But, it is one of the few streams within Christianity that gives me hope for humanity as a whole. Thanks for affirming why your stream is going to become extinct.

          • Frank

            Yeah ok. Let’s meet up in 20 years and see what has survived or not. Sounds like you will be disappointed.

          • People were saying “emergent” – or whatever label we want to use – would be dead ten years ago when I first heard about it. I don’t know that “the movement” will survive. And I don’t care. But its influence is undeniable. It’s ironic to me that these folks keep starting churches, writing books and having conferences – doing their own thing – but evangelicals can’t seem to just IGNORE them. Why? One reason is that a lot of people in evangelical churches are finding more resonance with this movement than with their own churches. I know that’s scary, and annoying.

            I’ve noticed something about myself lately: I really only pay attention to evangelicals when I’m not feeling whole, not at one with myself. When I need some catharsis. I think the same could probably be said for those who are so anti-Emergent. The evangelical church really needs some good psychoanalysis.

          • Frank

            The influence of the Emergent Church has both refocused some churches and Christians toward practically loving your neighbor and serves as a warning to the Church about the importance of truth and belief and that a endless conversation that never lands anywhere is useless and self-serving.

  • toddh

    I was a regular reader of BW3’s blog until about a year ago. I think the quality of his posts has dropped off over time. I admire him as a NT scholar, but I have found his insights of late to be less valuable, as typified by this emergent rant.

    • I would guess that the death of his daughter might have something to do with this. Tragic. But, I would also guess that taking a break from “theologizing” at that point would be wise.

  • Isn’t this just another variation of “emergent Christians should just leave the evangelical tradition and become mainline Protestants?” As an Anglo-Catholic, I’m sympathetic to that position to a large degree–but I also understand why an emergent Christian might view their evangelical past as an important element of their faith.

    It seems silly to only rant about emergent Christianity in particular instead of expanding the critique to include all of evangelicalism.

  • Aaron E.

    I agree that Witherington messed up here. But I’m not sure how helpful it is to turn this personal. Did he call you out, Tony? How about instead of posting his picture, linking to his faculty website, and putting his name in the title, you simply refute his argument. You did a pretty good job of that. But it’s hard for me to appreciate your takedowns of this sort when you seem so caught up in personalities instead of ideas.

  • Aaron E.

    And one other quick thing… is it wrong to remain within a Protestant tradition and to grieve over the disunity in the church? Is it hypocrisy? I certainly don’t think it’s fair to be critical of him for working at a Methodist seminary (or, for that matter, for being a Methodist), even with the things he said in his post.

  • Paul

    I really enjoy Ben Witherington’s writing, but greater study of the Bible is not necessarily what is needed. When I was at Fuller people studied the Bible, but what happens is some form of inability to understand the context that the Bible was written, meaning it’s overall mission of the redemption of the sin of unbelief. This has nothing to do with history, language, or proper exegesis. So students would slowly stop reading the Bible because they were not being challenged in the world they actually lived. Their realities were not lining up with the reality that is in Scripture. God calls people, transforms their lives, and they live completely trusting God with everything in their life. The whole problem is that the students were not seeing the transformation of Jesus Christ directly in the lives of non-believers becoming believers. Yes, this matters! It does not matter whether one is ecclesial or missional or emergent if people are not being transformed by the power of God’s Spirit. I mean Paul says in Romans that a person’s will can not make God do anything and if God is not doing it, then the whole endeavor will not last.

  • Pingback: Weekly Meanderings()

  • I thought you went too easy on the guy. You should tell him what you really think!

  • If you and Ben were seeking the kingdom of God instead of the kingdom of church, you wouldn’t be having these disputations.

    Church is as obsolete as Moses’ tabernacle. Be done with church and serve the Lord Jesus Christ all day every day.

  • Hi Tony,

    I can appreciate the frustration over what you deem are caricatures and misrepresentations. However, I don’t understand how you can be aware of how much “ongoing theological study” Ben’s former students engage in.


  • If Christianity were analogous to a high school, then Emergents* are just another clique. Not the jock clique. Not the skater clique (or the surfer clique). Not the musicians/choir/band clique. Not the gamer clique. Not the emo clique. Not the gay/metro clique. No, they’re that group of kids who are really smart (though not the smartest) and nerdy (though not overly geeky), somewhat cool and fun at the same time, and would be found hanging at Starbucks in their jeans, t-shirts and flip-flops and drinking over-priced lattes.

    ( * I should note that “Emergent” seems to have a major branding issue, which is really an identity issue. There’s the general and broader “emerging” movement, and the more specific “Emergent” organization/conversation. Where both begin/end seems frequently unclear. It’s like referring to a tissue as a Kleenex. Anyway, my use of “Emergent” here covers the overall spectrum of what is “emerging/emergent.”)

    But for all their smartness and nerdy-ness and coolness and fun-ness, they’re also a tad snobby, and even a bit too arrogant; know-it-all-ish; and vehemently averse to criticism (which is the most notable common characteristic I’ve encountered among Emergents).

    I speak for myself, of course, both from direct experience with “emergent-like” friends, as well as from the indirect, spectator experience beholding the “upper echelons” of Emergent-ism as they write their emergenty books and hold their emergenty seminars (some of them at $500 a pop; hotel and travel costs not included).

    My own perception of Emergent-ism is that it’s simply the left-leaning wing of the American Evangelical stripe, presenting a contrast to the right-leaning wing (think Southern Baptist Convention, and the ilk). In other countries, apply whatever relevant lefty-v-righty appellation that applies.

    And I have to pick this up a little later because I’m heading out . . . more after I return home.

    • jeff

      If Emergents dislike criticism it is often because it is petty and minimizing. Much like the comparison to a snobby, slightly nerdy high school clique. There are many reasons people choose emergent and for many former conservative evangelicals the reasons have to do with unanswered questions. We have problems (issues maybe) with much of the practice and theology of the various churches we come from. Before our switch to emergent, conversations with others in our churches about these problems usually turned into pep talks about having more faith or trusting more in Jesus etc.

      So in my own journey I find two main ways that conservative evangelicals engage emergents. Either by arguing the same tired theological arguments that prompted me to leave the church I was in or by criticizing the movement and making negative generalizations. In other words, the conversation tends to go nowhere (I question something and get the same answer every time) and so the conversation digresses. Bravo to those that struggle with a evangelical theology and manage to hang on in their respective churches. I could not.

      So adverse to meaningful/ helpful/ conversation moving criticism, no. Adverse to tired old theological positions and petty criticism, yes.

      • I think you may be confusing “petty” with apropos. As someone who embraces the emergent ethos, my criticism of emergentism as being akin to a “snobby, slightly nerdy high school clique” should be considered as “faithful wounds from a friend.” (see Proverbs 27:6)

        As for “minimizing” . . . an obvious example would be textually expressing a “Yawn” at Witherington’s insights (see Tony’s title heading to this very blog article), which were not petty at all. But the “yawn” certainly was.

        I agree with you, though, that the conversation between emergents and conservative evangelicals often goes nowhere. And like yourself, I could not (and did not) stay in conservative evangelical culture, holding on simply because it was familiar.

        Now that emergentism has been weaned out of its infancy (though this is not to say it has yet fully matured), I think its proponents (which includes me, and you) need to foster more productive ways of engagement. Otherwise we run the risk of perpetuating a Luke 9:46 situation: “An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest.”

        If Love is truly our way and our objective, then emergentism’s “righteousness” must surpass that of the old guard of conservative evangelicalism (compare Matthew 5:20). Otherwise, what we pass on to the next generation will be a worse poison than the one we inherited.

  • So, picking up where I left off (at 8:12am) . . .

    I’ll just post what I wrote on Ben Witherington’s blog:

    In his book THE ORTHODOX CHURCH, Greek Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware wrote the following: “Many people may be members of the Church who are not visibly so; invisible bonds may exist despite an outward separation. The Spirit of God blows where it chooses and, as Irenaeus said, where the Spirit is, there is the Church. We know where the Church is but we cannot be sure where the Church is not.”

    He was remarking how this is the view among most “moderate” Orthodox Christians, which includes most Orthodox who have contact with other Christians outside the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Which means, basically, most Orthodox.

    But overall, Ware’s point is true: wherever the Spirit is, there is the Church. Even where it cannot be visibly identified (otherwise known as “where the Church is not.”)

    Many Christians today are “where the Church is not.” Myself among them. And yes, there are some who are “anti-ecclesial” in the sense that they are at times (though not always) arrogantly dismissive of some older, more institutional traditions (such as Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, etc.) which have come to lack a modern relevance in their approach to today’s evolving generation of believers AND non-believers.

    Where Emergents are concerned, I have my own criticism. As I recently posted on Tony Jone’s “Theoblogy” blog, Emergents (especially the “leaders”) can be “a tad snobby, and even a bit too arrogant; know-it-all-ish; and vehemently averse to criticism (which is the most notable common characteristic I’ve encountered among Emergents). . . . My own perception of Emergent-ism is that it’s simply the left-leaning wing of the American Evangelical stripe, presenting a contrast to the right-leaning wing (think Southern Baptist Convention, and the ilk).”

    In that vein, I do believe that AT TIMES the Emergents are arrogantly anti-ecclesial. They have a frequent tendency of contrasting their fresh, hip new “way” of faith perception and action with the older, dry “way” of some historic Church institutions. As such, “fresh” is better than “old.”

    But having said that, and in spite of my own criticisms, I think Emergentism is a response to the hostility of the older generation of the Church, particularly in the United States. And I think it is an important response. The “old guard” American church has a sad reputation for intolerance, particularly toward women, gays, etc. Furthermore the “old guard” became seduced by conservative (i.e., right-wing) American politics such that for an entire generation Christian faithfulness was measured by one’s level of fealty to certain American political issues.

    Those of us in the post-1980’s generation see this not only as wrong, but as a dangerous and damaging perversion of the Gospel and the identity of Jesus as the embodiment of Love. And we want no part of that perversion.

    And so similarly as King Josiah — whose father before him, King Amon, perverted the worship of God — we of this “new generation” have rediscovered the Word anew (see 2 Kings chapter 22), and are moving forward in continued rediscovery of it and its place in our faith, with a desire simply to be more faithful than our forebears.

    If, then, there is hostility among Emergents toward the “old guard,” it is perhaps righteous. If it is rebellion, it is perhaps necessary. For just as Josiah sought diligently to renew relationship with God (see 2 Kings 23), many of us are moved to proverbially “tear down” (see 2 Kings 23:4-16) the theological and other accoutrements found in the “old guard” which have served to create more barriers than bridges.

    But overall, to agree with you IN PART, I agree the time has definitely come for Emergents to be much more gracious than they thus far have been.

    Yet ultimately . . . “Keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them — in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:38-39, NRSV)

  • mickey

    Hi Friends, did anyone actually read Ben’s post? I felt the over-all theme in the blogg was a call for unity ” Why should the world listen to any church group when we can’t even agree among ourselves” and here’s another excerpt: “Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful for renewal movements of God’s Spirit wherever they come from. We need them.” We need everybody – be kind, be humankind as they say in Oxfam over here in the Uk – Peace

  • Pingback: Theology Around the Blogosphere — August 2012 « Cheese-Wearing Theology()

  • Chuck Anderson

    Hard to have a “conversation” when people take things so personally.

    Loosen up.

  • Pingback: free instagram followers instantly()