The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

The Forbidden Tree of Postmodernism

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In recent weeks we have seen how the “New Atheists” are making postmodernism a thing of the academic past. But we also briefly discussed last week the “conversations” that are going on among a growing number of “postmodern” Christians who refer to themselves as the “Emerging Church.” Providentially, an article appeared on Christianity Today’s website called “Five Streams of the Emerging Church.” Written by Scot McKnight, who considers himself an adherent of Emergent, the article attempts to define and explain “key elements of the most controversial and misunderstood movement in the church today.”[1]

Thinking that I was finally going to get some clear direction and answers through the fog of the fuzzy logic of Emergent, I quickly printed out McKnight’s article and set to work with my pen and highlighter. Instead of getting clearer, however, McKnight quickly made his case for being a part of the movement—he’s as obtuse as the rest of them. Here’s an example:

To prevent confusion, a distinction needs to be made between “emerging” and “Emergent.” Emerging is the wider, informal, global, ecclesial (church-centered) focus of the movement, while Emergent is an official organization in the U.S. and the U.K. Emergent Village, the organization, is directed by Tony Jones, a Ph.D. student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a world traveler on behalf of all things both Emergent and emerging…While Emergent is the intellectual and philosophical network of the emerging movement, it is a mistake to narrow all of emerging to the Emergent Village.

Huh? It’s all right, go ahead and read it a second time, I’ll wait. Let me warn you though, it doesn’t make any more sense the second or third time either. You see, the Emergents (or is it emerging?) don’t want to get lumped all together as a homogenous group. Although they have no problem criticizing evangelicals as a whole, they don’t want us to do that to them. Here’s the big picture: Like it or not, Brian McLaren is the main voice box of the Emerging Church. His book, A Generous Orthodoxy, is something of the mission statement of the movement, albeit through his eyes. McLaren, as his book makes clear over and over again (in fact it is about the only thing that he makes clear), has a problem with the Church—and evangelicals in particular—hence the title of the book. His problem isn’t with Christianity per se, it is more with what he calls “orthodoxy.” McKnight sums it up nicely: “When the evangelical world prohibited postmodernity, as if it were fruit from the forbidden tree, the postmodern “fallen” among us…chose to eat it to see what it might taste like. We found that it tasted good, even if at times we found ourselves spitting out hard chunks of nonsense.”

McKnight’s forbidden tree analogy is instructive. Just because something tastes good, doesn’t mean that you should make it a steady diet. Eve perceived that the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was good for food and a delight to the eyes, yet that very fruit became her and Adam’s undoing. The very same thing is happening to the Emergents. They are attempting to mix the so-called “forbidden fruit of postmodernism” in with the propositional truth of the Bible. “The emerging movement’s connection to postmodernity may grab attention and garner criticism, but what most characterizes emerging is the stream best called praxis—how the faith is lived out. At its core, the emerging movement is an attempt to fashion a new ecclesiology (doctrine of the church).”[2] This would be fine if the Emergents were deriving their new ecclesiology from Scripture, but they’re not. This will always be the case when a movement allows the culture to set the pace and the goals. The Bible must take a back seat to the experiential and pragmatic whims of those outside the church’s gates. McKnight claims that the vast majority of emerging Christians “don’t deny truth, don’t deny that Jesus Christ is truth, and don’t deny the Bible is truth.” However, he admits there is a small, vocal minority that seems to attract all the (negative) attention.

[T]hey embrace the idea that we cannot know absolute truth, or, at least, that we cannot know truth absolutely. They speak of the end of metanarratives and the importance of social location in shaping one’s view of truth. They frequently express nervousness about propositional truth. LeRon Shults, formerly a professor of theology at Bethel Theological Seminary, writes: “From a theological perspective, 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 all finite reality. Languages are culturally constructed symbol systems that enable humans to communicate by designating one finite reality in distinction from another. The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping, as all the great theologians from Irenaeus to Calvin have insisted, and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry.”[3]

I would guess that a quote like this would set off the heresy detectors of a few stodgy, old, evangelicals stuck in the nineteenth century. What exactly separates Shults from your run of the mill agnostic? If language is a finite tool that is incapable of informing us about an infinite God, then God sure made a bad choice in attempting to communicate with us in the first place. In Shults’ view, special revelation is no better than general. The words of Scripture are nothing more than the wind whipping through the trees. McKnight and the rest of the emerging majority would do well to steer clear of Shults and his ilk, but they also need to realize that he is simply being consistent with the forbidden fruit from the postmodern tree. While McKnight is eating his fruit carefully and thoughtfully, one bite at a time; Shults has gorged himself on a bushel basket full and has taken to babbling incoherently. Man, left to his own devices, will push God out of the garden every time.

This is the premier danger of the emerging or Emergent or whatever it is that they want to be called: Being “missional” before being biblical. They are noble in their efforts in wanting to reform the church. I would be first in line to stand with them if their efforts were not culturally driven. It makes no difference where the culture “is,” what matters is Truth. We must conform the culture to the truths of Scripture, not the other way around. “Jesus looked directly at them and asked, ‘Then what is the meaning of that which is written: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone?” Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed’” (Luke 20:17-18). Psalm 78 gives explicit instruction on generational teaching. These same methods apply to missional activities outside of the church. Assuming the validity of the corrupt postmodern culture around us and dealing with them on these terms is like trying to teach a drowning man to swim. Only a truly biblical, presuppositional, propositional truth will be effective. We must believe that God knew what he was talking about when He began His Bible this way.

The Bible opens with this simple but majestic declaration: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” These sublime words not only form the foundation for the entire Bible and redemptive history, but establish the very cornerstone for an all-encompassing worldview…Genesis 1:1 asserts that God exists. When Genesis opens with the simple declaration “In the beginning God,” it does not argue for God’s existence; it assumes and asserts it. It is the grand presupposition of the creation narrative. In the believing worldview, the infinite, eternal, personal God absolutely exists and is the ground of all being.[4]

We must begin where God begins. If the culture is skeptical of propositional truth, then that should only serve as a confirmation of where we need to begin. Orthodoxy can only be “generous” in the sense that we welcome all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30) and join us on the narrow road which leads to life. God is in the business of using foolish things to shame the wise (1 Cor. 1:26-31). “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor. 2:14-16).

Footnotes:
[1]
. Scot McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church,” Christianity Today.com. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/february/11.35.html.
[2]
. Ibid.
[3]. Ibid.
[4]
. Gary DeMar (editor), Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Methodology of Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2007), 49.

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