Explaining Emerging (Part 4) – Scripture

Here’s another installment in my attempts to understand and explain what the whole emerging thing is all about in a way that my evangelical friends can understand. It seems almost every week I meet another person who has come across it and isn’t quite sure what to make of it. I am surprised so far that I haven’t been attacked in my comments for misrepresenting the movement. Presumably it is because noone is reading this, rather than because I am doing a good job of it! Anyway, things are going to get a bit more controversial in the next few posts!

Today I want to think about the emerging approach to Scripture. A typical evangelical would affirm that the Bible is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. That is to say that God inspired the very words, they contains no errors (no false statements), and will not fail you if you believe and obey it. Most evangelicals will also go on to affirm that the Bible is sufficient and perspicuous. “Sufficient” meaning that there is no extra revelation we need to know God, to learn the way of salvation, or to learn how we are to live. Perspicious is a complicated way of saying that the message that God intends to communicate to us in the Bible is plain for all to see. So even though there are some hard to understand bits, the important message of salvation through Jesus Christ is not obscure. The Chicago statement on Biblical Innerancy spells out a robust evangelical position on the Bible in detail.

So what do the emerging church people say? Well, they don’t like the term “inerrancy”, preferring to talk about the “authority” of the Bible. They accuse evangelicals of approaching the Bible as though it were a scientific textbook full of facts to be memorised and recited, or an instruction manual with detailed step by step instructions to follow exactly. Rather, they point out that much of the Bible is narrative, and then talk about how that narrative speaks to us and shapes us. It is hard to explain, as unlike the Chicago statement with its affirmations and denials, emergents explain their view of the Bible in more nebulous fashion. For example, emerging church favourite Walter Brueggemann has said…

The Bible is essentially an open, artistic, imaginative narrative of God’s staggering care for the world, a narrative that will feed and nurture into obedience that builds community precisely by respect for the liberty of the Christian man or woman.

What are the practical implications of the emerging approach to Scripture when contrasted with the way reformed evangelicals view it?

  • They are not into “expository preaching”. They do not attempt to extract a list of theological truths and commands to be obeyed from a passage. Rather they prefer to read a story, and see what original thoughts and innovative ideas it inspires. (check out Bruegemmann speaking at an Emerging Church conference for a bit more on this – look out for the word “imagination”)
  • They are not into “systematic theology”. Evangelicals like to put all the Bible together into one coherent framework, based on a belief in the unity of Scripture. Emergents view this with suspicion. Each author must be allowed to speak for himself. So we have Paul’s view of God, which is different from Peter’s and different from John’s etc (even more so in the Old Testament).
  • They are not into “inerrancy”. They view not just fundamentalists but evangelicals in general as overly literal in their approach to Scripture. They are happy to characterise various stories as “myths” or “legends”. Many emergent blogs show open contempt for anyone who holds to young earth creationism. Some would argue that anyone who asks “did it really happen?” of an Old Testament story or of a New Testament miracle account is “missing the point”.

Without a doubt, the emerging position is a challenge to the evangelical one. To be brutally honest, I feel that many of the emerging speakers I have read and heard are struggling with real doubts about the truth of the Bible, and this is their way of handling it. However, once started on the slippery slope of diminishing confidence in the Bible, it is not long before it loses its authority altogether, and the journey terminates in agnosticism or pluralism (n.b. for many emergents there is still a commitment to ancient Christian creedal statements, which at present puts some boundaries in place – more on this perhaps in a future post). I would argue that as evangelicals we do not need to repent of our high view of the Bible or our faith in it. However, we do need to be constantly re-evaluating our hermeneutics, and not automatically assuming that our current interpretation of a given passage is necessarily the correct one. I’ve posted some various thoughts here before on the woefully simplistic approach to interpreting Scripture often found in evangelical preaching.

5 thoughts on “Explaining Emerging (Part 4) – Scripture

  1. They are not into “expository preaching”. They do not attempt to extract a list of theological truths and commands to be obeyed from a passage.

    That sounds like saying that you’re not into narrative preaching because you’re not into topical sermons that skip around all over the Bible. Exactly what does expository preaching have to do with attempting to extract a list of theological truths and commands to be obeyed from a passage? As far as I can tell, virtually nothing. Expository preaching looks at what the text says in order to reflect on its place in scripture and what it teaches, but that involves biblical theology and (for narratives) getting into the narrative world of the text. I remain firmly convinced that people who say this have no idea whatsoever what expository preaching is. They seem to be criticizing something else entirely.

  2. Hi Jeremy,

    I’ve been thinking a bit about your comment today, and I think it is a recurring theme with the emerging church. They criticise a caricature of evangelicalism (e.g. fundamentalist anti-intellectual shallow arrogant etc). Of course there are plenty of evangelicals with perfectly mature approaches to Scripture and hermeneutics. However, the appeal of the emerging church is the fact that there are also plentiful examples of evangelical churches who are somewhat less distinguishable from that caricature. Christians in those churches are becoming disillusioned with or embarassed of what they are part of and are seeking to disassociate themselves. (this is probably more true of those coming from charismatic rather than reformed evangelical backgrounds)

    I myself wish that my own church was more into “expository preaching” than it is, although I am not as hard line on “expository only” as some seem to be.

  3. It’s one thing for a church not to be into expository preaching. It’s quite another for them not to be into it but to call what they do expository preaching anyway. The complaint in question assumes that everyone calling their preaching expository is doing something that’s not expository at all, whereas I don’t know anyone at all who’s doing that. I do know people who aren’t doing expository preaching, but at least they aren’t calling it that the way the emergent complaint in question is doing. It’s just a very strange complaint, sort of like saying you don’t like triangles because everything with more than four angles is suspicious.

  4. Cracking series Mark, and I really think you are doing well to explore the strengths and the weaknesses of all the systems under review!

    I think the issue of scripture is a vital one for the debate, since ‘Reformed people’ believe they are the ones handling scripture the most authentically (to bring in an earlier word from your series!), whilst the ‘Emergers’ believe *they* have recovered the structure and impetus of scripture (esp. through narrative, and emergents *do* like to tell stories….;-)).

    Who is right?

    Well, I’d say both/and really. I love expository preaching and have done a fair bit of it in my time as well! My own ’emergent influence’ hasn’t changed my desire to get under the skin of scripture and communicate it to others, instead it has helped me to see how one can achieve this goal by using different communicative methods.

    Clearly the church has been doing systematics from the very beginning, and there will always be a need for compact systems to explain Christian belief. Tom Wright made a great point when he said that the purpose of ‘doctrine’ was to try to communicate wide and deep truth in shorter terms (like any technical jargon), however one also needs to be able to ‘unpack’ the jargon to understand the truth which underpins it and informs it. He used the illustration of a suitcase, where one packed lots of clothes tightly inside in order to transport them to another destination, but on reaching the destination the point wasn’t to leave the clothes tightly packed but to get them out, dust them down and start using them.

    In the same way when we say something like ‘The Atonement’ we are using doctrinal/systematic jargon which we will need to ‘unpack’ to understand further. So where do we start in ‘unpacking’ this term? Well, I guess it has to start ‘In the beginning…’ – you get my point…

    I’ve been part of a number of ‘Reformed’ churches (and have experienced a number of Charismatic ones too), and I’ve seen a fair amount of ‘flat reading’ of scripture – without any attempt to ‘unpack’ the broader themes or the intrinsic narrative/literary structure. Such readings (and teachings) often did lead to a simplistic ‘do such and such’ as the supposed ‘plain meaning of scripture’.

    However, good reading of scripture didn’t begin with emergents, neither did it with the Reformers ;-). Church tradition is awash with good preaching and teaching and the wider we cast our reading the better our understanding will be.

    p.s. as for ‘inerrancy’, one can make *that* term mean so many different things, an additional bit of careful unpacking wouldn’t be amiss before one defines themself as either ‘inerrant’ or against ‘inerrancy’…

  5. Thanks Richard,

    The suitcase is a helpful analogy. I do think there is a diverging hermeneutic approach between conservative evangelicals and emergents, which is not just reflected in the way they teach but also in the conclusions they come to about the meaning and application of any given text.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *