DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 03

After giving five back-handed compliments to the Emerging Church, Carson dug into his actual critiques.

First, he said that “at the risk of horrible generalizations,” he would deal with the issue of epistemology.

Carson believes that those in the Emerging Movement fail to distinguish between hard and soft postmodernism. Hard postmodernists believe that there can be no knowledge of truth, for we are all looking at things from our individual or group’s perspectivist viewpoint. Soft postmodernists, however, recognize that in spite of perspectivism, we can know some things truly though we cannot know anything absolutely.

Carson used an interesting illustration. In Calculus, as Carson explained it (though I'm not a mathmatician, so I can't assure you that this is right), an asymptotic curve is a line whose distance to an axis tends toward zero, but may never actually intersects zero. We can proximate a lot through calculus (“close enough, in fact to get us on the moon. We could never have landed on the moon without Calculus!” Carson explained), but it is only an approximation, not an absolute.

In the same way, finite human beings can know approximately what truth is, we can get accurate enough to say it is "true" even though we know it is only extremely close.

Soft postmoderns accept this.

However, the Emerging Church, according to D.A. Carson, isn’t interacting with soft postmodernism, but only hard postmodernism. He cites John Franke as a leading Emerging Church theologian, and says that Franke only interacts with hard postmodernism.

At this I scratched my head. I know a lot of emerging church people. I read a lot of emerging church blogs. I’ve read a lot of emerging church books. Very few of them advocate for a hard postmodernism. Most are easily in Carson’s category of soft postmodernism (including myself).

Is this a case of Carson building a straw man (that the Emerging Church is filled with hard postmodernists) so that he can easily burn it down?

Posts in this series:
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 01

DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 02
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 03
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 04
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 05
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 06

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Matt said...


So if Carson had been clearer and stronger that only some EC leaders are hard postmodernists and those are the ones he is concerned about, you would be okay with his point here?

It's mainly that he paints with too broad a brush?


Anonymous said...

Don isn't saying that most people in the Emerging church are hard postmodernists--but that those who publish in the name of Emerging/emergent mainly interact with hard postmodernists, as if this is the main new reality that the Christian church has to deal with. But the reality is that in both the Christian and non-Christian thought world, chastened foundationalists and 'soft' non-foundationalists are very, very numerous, and not all that unlike one another.
--Tim Keller

Bob Robinson said...

I think that Tim Keller summarizes Carson's point well. Which, in my opinion Matt, paints the EC with too broad of a brush. The reason I scratched my head is that those who publish Emerging-type books are not just interacting with hard postmodernists.

It seems to me that the theologians that EC people like are people like NT Wright and Walter Brueggemann. The leading missiologist that the EC loves is Lesslie Newbigin. Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed is the number one EC blog. None of these people are hard postmoderns; only some could be classified into the "chastened foundationalist" category.

But even those who are exploring non-foundationalist philosophy (like a John Franke) are doing so from a Christian perspective. They are not seeking to cast away the faith; they are seeking to be critical of Cartesian categories of knowledge. As I wrote in an earlier post in which I agreed with Franke, "Descartes is not De'Christ!" There is nothing inherently Christian about foundationalism as a philosophy. So, if we are going to reach those who live within a philosophical framework of non-foundationalism, we had better understand it and we had better be able to bring the gospel into that. So there are those who are exploring that, and thank God for them.

But, by and large, even a Brian McLaren (who Carson is very critical of) must be categorized as a soft-postmodernist.

Brian said...

As someone who has read Franke extensively and know him personally, I find Carson's claim that he is a hard postmodernist extremely dubious, if not completely false.

In the book that he co-wrote with Stan Grenz Franke comes right out and says that while influenced by the social constructionist arguments ultimately there is a reality that exist independent of our knowledge of it. It's merely the nature of our knowledge of reality that is up for debate. Franke declares himself to be a "eschatalogical realist". The description of an eschatalogical realist hardly makes him a hard postmodernist.

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks, Brian,

That's very helpful.

Chad said...

I can't understand why we must assume that Carson's definitions are correct or that they must define "us" as a sub-grouping within this larger grouping?

I am not ready to assert that he is correct when he says there are people called "hard" or "soft" postmoderns, nor do I care. I could care less if he can't take the time to get to know anyone in the conversation, then write a book about being "conversant."

Personally, I have felt that the while the whole "post-modern" and de-constructionist philosophy was very helpful and insightful for a time, it alone does not, nor should, define who Emergent is (or this thing called the 'emerging church).

I don't even want to speak ill of Carson as he has offered good ideas in the past, but I can't take too much of anyone who is so full of himself as to make general attacks and call them "compliments."

Personally, (as it seems you would
) I would like to have seen DA really engage in a real conversation rather than to assume that anyone who doesn't agree with him is stupid.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Brian...Franke is "hardly" a "hard" postmodernist. I have my doubts that such a character even exists. I smell straw burning.

Then again, that's just like a modernist to go and dissect a movement, label its parts, and quantify them. Seeing people as a bundle of ideologies rather than complex whole beings seems to still be the dominant dynamic.

What's the burr in Carson's saddle anyway? Usually folks I run into who are this adamantly in opposition to Emergent are trying to protect their sacred institutions...i.e. money and power. Does Carson seriously think postmodernism is going to destroy the faith? Was he not there when modernism failed to do it?

Gerald said...

I heard Carson give this same basic lecture, and I think Tim Keller's comments above capture the heart of what Carson is trying to say. Carson's point (at least in the lecture I heard him give) is not that Franke, McKnight, the late Grenz and others are hard post-modernists. They are not and he does not claim that they are. His point was that many EC thinkers lump all of conservative evangelicalism together as if it uniformly embraced classic foundationalism. This is a caricature. What Carson is critiquing is what he perceives to be the "either/or" mentality of much of post-evangelical critique. As Tim notes above, virtually everyone in the conversation is a soft-foundationalist. EC thinkers need not make such an issue of epistemology as though conservatives embraced some outdated structure.

Of course, this goes both ways. Both sides wrongly characterize the other.

Bob Robinson said...


Actually, that was not Carson's point here (he talked about that in his next point - see post 04).

His point here (before moving on to what you are addressing) is that the EC's top theologians are only interested in interacting with hard postmodernism (defined as an epistemology that denies propositional truth), without a lot of recognition of all the epistemological discussion that reflects something less than hard anti-Cartesian epistemology.

But this is simply not true. As Brian and Coach Zee point out here in these comments, Carson even misdiagnosed Franke's mode of operation.