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.