Scot McKnight: DA Carson and the Emergent Movement

looks like Scot McKnight is right on the ball and, as promised, has his first blog post on the subject up already. To further the discussion, Andrew Jones outlines a pattern for the discussion from Acts 15 and points interested folks over to Jesus Creed.

After an excellent introduction, McKnight poses four questions, which I will interact with briefly inline (remember Usenet discussion?) below. These are mostly off-the-cuff thoughts and shouldn’t be misconstrued as being a comprehensive interaction… but that’s what conversation is like. Keeping it informal.

#1: Does “emerging” refer to the postmodern culture in all its varieties, or to the church hat accompanies that shift in culture, or to the ideas that are part of that culture, or to the gospel that responds to that culture, or to the gospel taking shape in a new way in a new cultural paradigm? The answer to this question matters immensely. And I’m not sure DA Carson, or even some of the Emergent folk, are all pointing at the same “thing” when they speak of “emerging”.

Scot, you’re perfectly correct in recognizing that EC is difficult to define, and the definition is still shifting. Whether I or others agree with it totally, I think the discussion must consult the Wikipedia definition. While there are perhaps better definitions, the Wikipedia one is interesting because of the very nature of Wikipedia… here we have a definition that is designed to be peer-reviewed, edited, and updated. This very notion is hard for some to swallow… Wikipedia is not the Encyclopedia Britannica. Who are the fact-checkers? Who verifies its accuracy? How can we quote from it if we don’t know it won’t change next week?

Ah, now we start to grapple with it… these very differences are the crux of the cultural shift we’re engaged in, with the Internet playing a very large role. Perhaps this is an argument for a “loose” definition of EC… but it seems to me that a precise and authoritative one remains for now an improbability, if not an impossibility.

#2: Is the “emerging” movement fundamental a church of protest? And, if so, is the primary target of the protest evangelicalism? What are its targets?

Oh, I hope not… that’s not my intent. Reaction may be a significant component, but protest connotes in my mind something that is too strongly opposed to the “other” than what I have actually found in EC.

#3: Is the postmodernist epistemology of the Emerging folks (and one should not simply equate postmodernists and the Emergent folks) essentially affectional over against rational? inclusive vs. exclusivist? authentic vs. the absolute? is social history more significant that the history of ideas?

Wow, Scot — this right here is a lot of blogfodder to consider. I think I’d say on the comparisons you suggest, partly, but not essentially… though “authentic” really strikes a chord. Social history more significant than the history of ideas? I hate to put one above the other, but one without the other is problematic. How can we really understand the ideas without understanding the social context from which they sprang? This provides the all-important context for the ideas, and I think that this largely the relationship between postmodernism (social context) and EC (ideas). Not the same, but intertwined. This should come with a reminder that in the intertwining of ideas and culture, we need to be open to the idea that some of our ideas may need to be revised or rejected as/when culture changes.

#4: Is “emergent” or “integral” thinking superior to traditional absolutist rational thinking?

No. (Pause.) “Superior” is very slippery ground, and ground not easily maintained if ever attained. Our thinking today will come and go and be replaced by something else… I would prefer to say in this arena that “emergent” thinking is more culturally-appropriate in a postmodern context. In a modern context, “traditional absolutist rational” thinking is(was) more appropriate. I might suggest “more culturally appropriate” instead of “inherently superior.”

#5: Has the Emergent movement understood culture accurately? Does it appeal to Scripture accurately?

This one I can’t answer, at least not from this vantage point. Time will tell. Obviously we all seek accurate understandings, but I can’t say any of us arrived… that’s the nature of the journey, being willing to be adjusted along the way as we get glimpses of seeing “less darkly.”


  1. Brother Maynard,
    Some very good answers here. I’m keen on listening to the responses before I do too much responding. I think you’re tweak on “superior” is very good, and I thank you for it.
    Those questions, you may have guessed, are really addressed to the stands I think Carson is taking. So time will tell.

  2. Yes, I had the feeling these questions were much about setting the stage for the dialogue to follow. Like all of us without prerelease priviledges, I haven’t read Carson’s book yet, but realize that some people like yourself have a good idea about what it contains, at least generally, and I’m looking forward to the dialogue. As I thought through the questions you posed, I think they form a good basis to lead into a productive conversation – my comments are really just my thought process as I worked through them briefly.

    I do hope that Dr. Carson is more receptive to dialogue with EC than he was with the Vineyard… I’m not sure why there wasn’t more conversation there, but if he doesn’t wish to converse, we would be the poorer for it. You’ve probably noted that there’s a good deal of respect for him in EC, and many voices actually welcoming his critique.

    I’ll be watching your blog for more on this with eagerness but (I hope) patience as it takes form — once again, thanks for taking up this part of the conversation.

  3. Brother Maynard,
    Thanks for not bringing out the holy hanf grenade in answering these questions…

    You said, “I might suggest “more culturally appropriate” instead of “inherently superior.””

    That’s right, I think–and it ties into my answer to Q5
    “Emergent is closer to accuracy than Modern Reformation Calvinist Evangelicalism (MRCE) is (of which Carson is a staunch advocate), simply because of the postmodern sensibilities Emergent embraces. Culture is not understood accurately by the MRCE because it presumes that postmodernism is either inherently evil or a passing fad. Scripture is not understood accurately by the MRCE because of its steadfast intolerance of new paradigms that give light to the gospel message (i.e., MRCE’s insistence that the only definition of Justification must be forensic).”

  4. #1: “Emerging” — It’s a generic phrase which covers a great variety of people and points of view. As such, it’s not only difficult to categorize, but dangerous to do so. Over-generalization is a very real trap which will result in unnecessary over-reactions.

    #2: Is the “emerging” movement fundamental a church of protest?

    “Protest” may be a starting point for some, but then they’d stay within the church groupings that they’re protesting. I suspect most have not so much given up on established or “institutional churches” (I really dislike that phrase because it sounds so elitist and judgmental), as they have grown weary of be advocates of change, and have elected to pursue something more life-like (to them) outside of former affiliations. And, of course, numbered among them are those who were forced out (or fired, if they were pastors), who start something new because they felt that had no other option.

    #3: Is the postmodernist epistemology of the Emerging folks (and one should not simply equate postmodernists and the Emergent folks) essentially affectional over against rational? inclusive vs. exclusivist? authentic vs. the absolute? is social history more significant that the history of ideas?

    I’m not comfortable that we should make these “either/or” statements, but possibly some form of “both/and”. How very postmodern of me, eh? :)

    #4: Is “emergent” or “integral” thinking superior to traditional absolutist rational thinking?

    Not necessarily, but it’s definitely a reflection of the culture we find ourselves in, and also trying to live as apprentices of Jesus in.

    #5: Has the Emergent movement understood culture accurately? Does it appeal to Scripture accurately?

    To the first part, I think most of it is instinctive rather than intellectual (not suggesting that pomo’s aren’t intelligent of course!) — while some study philosophy and are educational postmodernists, most are cultural postmodernists because they were raised in a postmodern context.

    For the second part, I think we run the risk of allowing our emerging/postmodern viewpoints to dictate how Scripture is interpreted, rather than the other way around. Of course, most people who accuse pomo’s of not “rightly dividing the Word of Truth” are themselves guilty of an Enlightenment-based understanding of Scripture. Hence the focus — a good one, in my view — that we look to historic creeds and historical theology of the pre-Modern era as a tethering point (to use Charles Kraft’s analogy).

  5. I’d like to understand this post-modern, emergent movement, or whatever you call it, but I’m about six inches from giving up. So far it appears to me to be a group of people who propose a lot of new ideas, but upon drawing even the slightest hint of criticism, they quickly point out that you can’t really question it because we don’t fully know yet what it is. I’m starting to wonder if we’ll ever really know what it is, since the custodians of the movement openly eschew actual answers to questions anyway, favoring some journey of questions where you never really arrive at answers.

    Maybe there really are people who think this way, and if they do, they need to be witnessed to and ministered to, just like any other demographic, but as a way of life I don’t see this philosophy lasting.

  6. Opie, I’m not entirely sure what to do with posts like yours. I’ve had them before on this blog, and to be honest I never know quite what to say. The emerging church (“EC”) is not easy to define, even for those who are a part of it… everyone has their own definition, including

    I might put it this way… there are small groups of people all over the world who are rethinking the way they do church, the way they relate to each other and to the world, what it means to follow Jesus, and how God interacts with us to change our lives. A lot of them are independently coming up with very similar answers, as each group is guided by the Holy Spirit. The general trends and themes that are common to many of these have been described as “emerging.” Although there are some groups like Emergent Village and The Ooze that a few are affiliated with, by and large there’s nobody “in charge” of EC, there are really no “custodians of the movement” though there are some prominent spokespersons.

    As to how EC deals with criticism, I don’t think it works quite the way you’ve suggested… if a criticism is leveled against a particular belief or practice in some ECs, it must be recognized that this is not the same as finding all ECs guilty of this belief or practice… so it’s as inaccurate to say, “ECs are all bad because they don’t use real pews” as it is to say, “Non-denominational churches are bad because they don’t use real pews.” I’m intentionally picking an absurd criticism… one could consider the claim that Christianity is stupid because Christians believe that when they take a bit of bread and wine, it literally becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, and that’s absurd. You might say, “But I’m a Christian, and I don’t believe that!” …but it’s still true that some Christians do believe it. EC works similarly… they don’t all use candles and they don’t all believe that we should only have house churches. But some do.

    As to what EC is and how it responds to criticism, I recommend the link to Bob Hyatt’s article and to the discussion of Scot McKnight – both linked in recent posts on my blog.

    hth… and don’t give up!

  7. I think you’ve done a better job of explaining it than I’ve seen elsewhere so far. Being a pretty ecumenical person, I don’t intend to totally ignore any body of believers who adheres to the common creeds of the church, so I’ll continue to watch. I’ve seen some pretty unsound ideas from people who associate themselves with EC, but we see that in all walks of Christianity at times so I’ll try to be patient and fair. Thanks.


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