Ah HAH! No Wonder Emergent is Threatening to Evangelicalism!

I've been reading this month's issue of Christianity Today. In two separate articles, David Neff and Philip Yancey both cite British historian David Bebbington and his four-part definition of evangelicalism.

In Yancey's article, A Quirky & Vibrant Mosaic, excerpted from the introduction of the forthcoming book, The Beliefnet Guide to Evangelical Christianity (by Wendy Murray Zoba) he writes,

“The British historian David Bebbington suggests this overall summary of evangelical distinctives:

  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a ‘born again’ experience.
  • Activism: the expression of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts.
  • Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible as the ultimate authority.
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.”
In Neff's "Editor's Bookshelf" column, in which he interacts with Kenneth Collins' new book The Evangelical Moment: The Promise of an American Religion, Neff writes,

"No one can write about evangelicalism without engaging in the difficult task of definition. Collins follows David Bebbington's four key characteristics, which when taken together help us recognize evangelicals: the normative value of Scripture, the necessity of conversion, the cruciality of the atoning work of Christ, and the imperitive of evangelism."

No wonder many evangelicals get upset when Christian leaders (especially those in "emerging" circles) begin to ask questions about these four things.
  • When somebody suggests that we need to re-think how Scripture functions in the life of a believer, that's a threat to evangelicalism's Biblicism.
  • When somebody suggests that conversion may be more of a process than an instant decision, that can be a threat to traditional evangelical ideas concerning Conversionism.
  • When somebody suggests that penal substitutionary atonement is not the only way to describe the gospel, again we sense that threat--to Evangelicalism's Crucicentrism.
  • And when somebody says that evangelism methods that have been used for the last century need to be reshaped, that is (can you guess?) yet another threat, this time to Evangelical Activism.
This is just one of those "Ah-hah" moments for me.


D. P. said...

Good thoughts! I think you may be on to something.

curtis said...

In my experience, it is none of these four areas, although I'm sure they play a part. The fact of the matter is, in my experience, most emgergent church members have abandoned rational dialouge through tones that are condescending and at time spiteful- look at your own post, which seems full of its own importance. After all, it is axiomatic that we need to rethink scripture. Of course conversion is more than one experience. And the Penal Substitutionary theory is wrong- everybody knows that. This seems to be the tone behind the post itself- and what makes it more frustrating is that it is hiding behind the facade of true rational dialouge when all it is really doing is begging the question.

I think evangelical views on scripture are much stronger. I think that the penal substitutionary theory is wrong- I prefer the Christus Victor interpretation. I most definitely think that conversion and sanctification are so wrapped up in one another that it is difficult- if not impossible- for the two to be distinguished. Even though I agree with 2/3 of your assertions- if in spirit only- I still feel like you aren't exactly presenting these ideas well.

Its the same way with almost every emergent church or emergent church member I've ever dialouged with. There is this smug air of self-importance- and a distinct lack of humility.

Some advice: you want to engage the evangelicals and not allow them to be "threatened"? Stop talking down to them. Stop assuming that you hold the "freethinking" high ground. Respect them as your brothers in Christ- as an outsider, I certainly don't think this movement has done a very good job.

Are there members of the emergent church who don't make these mistakes? Of course. But in my experience- from Colorado to California- in gneral, this has not been the case.

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks for the harsh critique. I do not want to come across as self-important. The "Ah-HAH!" for me is that I AM AN EVANGELICAL. And, for most of my Christian life (especially through my evangelical seminary training) I have held to many of these four tenents. But now I have become willing to be humble enough to re-evaluate them. The "AH HAH" is that if evangelical scholars, pastors, and writers identify themselves with these four things (as Yancey and Collins do) then no wonder many of them are automatically threatened by emergent/emerging church stuff.

I certainly was at first. I was intrigued but cautious. Then I realized that, for a long period of time, I was not being intellectually honest nor was I being humble enough to say, "Hey, Maybe I don't know it all."

Your caracature of emerging church people as arrogant is something I haven't seen a whole lot (though I admit that this particlar post could be read that way, though it was not my intention). It has been my experience that there is a spectrum in the EC same as in every other gathering of Christians--some haughty, some truly meek. The humility of spirit that is in Brian McLaren is one of his greatest attributes--any time I've been around him, he is very willing to listen and to learn and to grow and to admit he doesn't have all the answers. I hope I could be more like that! Sorry again about my haughtiness and self-importance!

By the way, I don't think penal substitutionary atonement is wrong--I think it is right there in Romans (it seems arrogant for you to say that "everybody knows that"). I just think that it is not the "heart of the gospel" as many evangelicals (like DA Carson) are insisting. It is one of many ways to explain the wonder of what Christ did by His grace.

curtis said...

I appreciate your reply and thank you for taking the time to make it. Reading my own post, I see where I raised the tone a bit louder than I perhaps meant to, and although I still stand by a vast majority of the points that I made, I can certainly see things better now that I have your perspective on my comments. I apologize if any of it came of as overly harsh- I didn't mean for it to be arrogant or angry in tone, merely firm. Sometimes that fine line is difficult to express in a blog comment.

Perhaps it is just my interaction- there is always the chance that I am only meeting those who behave this way. I admittedly haven't read much emergent church literature- probably becuase I'm so put off by those that I know. Seeing your reasonble reply encourages me to go seek out more information.

I still find much of the emergent church thinking somewhat flawed- I'm going to grant here that I happen to only have met the more problematic side of the movement- in that it seems to value open mindedness simply for the sake of open mindedness. Not that being willing to view things from other perspectives is somehow wrong necessarily- indeed, it is a very positive attribute- but it needs to have a firm purpose.

Indeed, I think dogmatic thinking gets a bad rap from the movment too. How many emergent church leaders criticize so-called "dogmatic" thinking (or at least inspire the same in their followers) purely because it is dogmatic. Dogmatic thinking that happens to be right is a good thing. The problem comes when it isn't right. I postulate that it is possible to know correct positions for incorrect ones, and that correct ones should be held dogmatically and unconditionally. The emergent church seems to understand this as well- there seems to be a very large corpus of the movment that holds dogmatically to certain ideas of tolerance and open-mindedness- not a bad thing per se, but it seems somewhat inconsistent to me that so many of them then turn around and criticize "evangelicals" for precisely the same sort of behaviour.

Finally, I've found an extreme amount of unhealthy political rhetoric from emergent church members and organizations. While I certainly am very- very glad that a Christian movement in the United States is vocally supporting things such as the elimination of third-world poverty, occasionally their members use the movement as a thinly-veild excuse to dogmatically attack conservative positions purely becuase they are the dominant view among the church. Questioning our heritage is an important endevour- not a self-important one. Again, perhaps I've somehow managed to meet the only part of the movement as a whole that is like this, but it has been the overriding theme of the members I've come into contact with. Insulating oneself against criticism simply by claiming a minority view isn't very strong position- and sadly, it is one that I've seen time and time again amonst emergent church members.

Anyway. I hope this post clears up some problems with my earlier statments. Once again, thanks for responding with so much grace to a post that I think miscommunicated my tone. I apologize if any offense was taken- it wasn't meant to be.

Bob Robinson said...


Thanks for the reply.

I’m wondering where you’ve interacted with so many emerging church people. These churches are few and far between, and each one is so different from the others in their particular context that it is hard to make generalizations about the entire movement from one church community.

One thing that many who are looking into emergent needs to understand is that it is a reaction, in many ways, to the 20th Century conservative evangelical church. In much the same way as the neo-evangelicalism that arose in the middle of the 20th Century reacted to the fundamentalists of the early part of that century, many in the emerging church conversation are doing the same (this is the case made my Robert Webber in his book, The Younger Evangelicals —the title itself is a give-away, since it is a play on the title of a book written about the neo-evangelicals of the later 20th Century entitled The Young Evangelicals). Therefore, many in this thing are indeed EVANGELICALS THEMSELVES (as I am) and are now trying to move toward a new understanding of both theology and practice that is post-evangelical (or, better, neo-evangelical again).

As a reaction, we will experience many who overstate their case (too far of a pendulum swing) in order to spark change. That is to be expected at this stage. There will be a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis—always seems to happen in the dialectic of change. So, I too get frustrated with some who seem too reactionary or too combative…but I understand that this is part of the flow of conversation that is inevitable in a time of change.

Many in the emerging conversation are not opposed to dogmatics per se, they are opposed to closed-mindedness about dogmatics. I agree with you that many have a knee-jerk reaction against anything that smacks of propositional theological statements. Again, a reaction—they want a more narrative way of thinking, but in doing so, they are thinking that they will never think in a propositional form again, which seems highly doubtful!

As far as politics goes, emergent is a safe place for those of us who are critical of the Religious Right’s stranglehold on evangelical Christianity. I doubt that it is meant to be “self-important” as much as “WHEW! I thought I was the only one who felt this way!”

Maybe if you read the new statement put out by some of the key people at Emergent Village, you could hear their heart about many of the legitimate concerns you have.

curtis said...

Well, that certainly looks like a statement I'll be very glad to read. To answer some questions:

1. I've interacted primarily with emergent church members in the Southern California area. Inasmuch as I go to college at Biola in La Mirada, there is perhaps a higher concetration and greater diversity of emergent church members than in a typical environment. Also, I've met briefly some from Colorado-area churches. Seeing as I'd rather not mention outright the names of those I've interacted with for fear of embarassing them, I think I can at least compromise and grant, for the benefit of the doubt, that I've either interacted with them myself poorly or simply met groups that do not represent the movement as a whole.

Your other thoughts make sense, and I have to say, I've enjoyed this dialouge. I hope to continue visiting- thank you for your thoughts!

Phil Steiger said...

Bob-Interesting post, and very thought provoking. I especially appreciate your link to the recent emergent article in response to their critics-it was good for me to read.

My own criticisms of emergent have not been along the lines you mentioned in your post, but now I will need to go back, reevaluate, and see if they had a role to play in my reactions.

Typically I have balked at the way emergent tends to play fast and loose with the idea of objective truth. It was good to read in their article you linked to that they belive in truth and the importance of truth, but I must admit, that leaves me a bit befuddled. I hope it is the case, but I then don't know what to think of the emergent theologies that openly suggest that Scriptural interpretations are up to local communities (cultural relativism), and apologetic strategies that claim "there is no such thing as objective truth, and it is a good thing, too" (metaphysical relativism). In my philosophical and ethical studies and research I have found it indicative of relativists that they openly deny being any stripe of relativist on one page,and then less than ten pages later they make blatantly relativistic claims.

For all my criticisms of emergent, I really do hope for the best. I want to see it be a positive influence, renewal movement, and even a corrective where necessary.

Bob Robinson said...

I appreciate that cautiousness.
To quote the above cited "response" from the Emergent leaders:

"...we would like to clarify, contrary to statements and inferences made by some, that yes, we truly believe there is such a thing as truth and truth matters – if we did not believe this, we would have no good reason to write or speak; no, we are not moral or epistemological relativists any more than anyone or any community is who takes hermeneutical positions – we believe that radical relativism is absurd and dangerous, as is arrogant absolutism..."

Jeff Wright said...

"When somebody suggests that conversion may be more of a process than an instant decision, that can be a threat to traditional evangelical ideas concerning Conversionism."

Its been my experience that evangelicals that it is more of a process for some and more of an identifiable moment for others.

"When somebody suggests that penal substitutionary atonement is not the only way to describe the gospel, again we sense that threat--to Evangelicalism's Crucicentrism."

Did DA Carson state that this is the only way to describe the gospel?

"And when somebody says that evangelism methods that have been used for the last century need to be reshaped, that is (can you guess?) yet another threat, this time to Evangelical Activism."

I dunno. Maybe I'm being too picky but I'm always seeing people suggest new and different ways to evangelize and I don't see where people are acting threatened by them.

Bob Robinson said...

I guess I'm asking for a little slack when I use rhetorical devices to make a point...

Of course many evangelicals accept a "process" in conversion, but most will still say there is a moment when one moves from spiritual death to spiritual life, whether they can identify that moment or not.

Of course DA Carson allows for other descriptions of the Atonement, but he still maintains that the central heart of the gospel is penal substitution.

Of course evangelism methods have been tweaked in the past hundred years here and there. But many evangelicals are suspicious of listening to outside voices (like Catholics and Eastern Churches) about how they win converts. And most still hold strongly onto the sermon in an auditorium as the main way to win people evangelistically (and are suspicious of those who question whether this is the best mode to do this).

actionsub said...

I've wondered about this process vs. moment approach to conversion for about 20 years now.
What got me going was a statement by Billy Graham's wife, Ruth, that she could not recall having made a specific decision in time to be a Christian.
This is interesting in and of itself, since her spouse probably exemplifies best the concept of a "moment in time" conversion!

Bob Robinson said...

My wife and I are both incapable of naming the specific time we came to faith, though we both admire Billy Graham and what his ministry has accomplished in the past half century!

I came to faith over an entire summer, while in a community of believers that cared for me. I "belonged" before I "believed." I just got to the point where I simply began saying to myself, "I believe!"

My "time marker," then, is my baptism. I know that on that Thanksgiving weekend, I was VERY thankful indeed!