Thursday, April 09, 2009

Generous Orthodoxy 0: Introductory Stuff

My blogging is going to have to slow down over the course of the summer and into next year. I will still plan to post at least one entry a week. Until then, I hope to continue several threads.

For Wednesdays or Thursdays in the meantime, I have been wanting to read Brian McLaren's Generous Orthodoxy for a while. I bought it over a year ago. But since I've been taking off on the name (my Generous Ecclesiology idea), I thought I should go ahead and read the book.

The subtitle is "Why I Am a missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/calvinist + anabaptist/anglican + methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished CHRISTIAN."

Yesterday I read John Franke's Foreward, McLaren's Introduction, and his Chapter 0: For Mature Audiences Only. Let me start off by saying, what a refreshing and uplifting read these pages were! I'm sure I won't agree with everything McLaren says, but after wading through Viola's book these last weeks, McLaren is such a breath of fresh air. If you want to know what form of orthodox Christianity has the best chance of surviving and possibly thriving in Western culture in the days ahead (the real stuff will of course survive regardless of what we do), it is this kind of Christianity.

Although it goes against the spirit and warnings of the book in terms of generosity, let me take the Wesleyan troops aside for a second and say, this book is so Wesleyan in spirit. I know there are some corners of my fellowship that see this book as part of the problem. And let me say that I hope they will reconsider. There are no doubt things associated with words like "postmodern," "emergent," "tolerant," and so forth that are worth worrying about. But the problem with using labels to dismiss ideas ("socialist," "communist," "Democrat," "Republican") is that doing so almost always ends up dismissing good things with the bad, almost always, almost without exception! Let the person wanting to honor God with their thinking beware!

I do not think that McLaren--as far as I can tell so far--embodies any of the bad you might find in any labels you might try to affix to him. I fear that using such labels to dismiss him--without engaging in what he has to say--is not only bad thinking, is a poor representation of Christ to good thinkers. But I believe it is bad Christianity, potentially giving Satan an opportunity to manipulate us to where we ignore things God wants us to hear. There are things McLaren has to say, I believe, that are what God thinks. Just in case, we should open our hearts and minds to what he has to say. If he doesn't, then close them back off.

Foreward by Franke
The phrase "generous orthodoxy" doesn't actually come from McLaren. It comes from Hans Frei, a "post-liberal" theologian. As far as I can tell, the focal difference between a "post-liberal" and a "post-conservative" is where you came from. I come from a conservative background, so if you called me a "post-conservative" you would mean that I was a person from a conservative background trying to move beyond the older stilted categories of conservative and liberal. A "post-liberal" is doing the same coming from the other direction.

A great quote from Frei is this: "Generosity without orthodoxy is nothing, but orthodoxy without generosity is worse than nothing" (14). I wholeheartedly agree and think all in the Wesleyan tradition should.

Here are some quotes from the foreward:

"... postmodern theory does not support the rejection of rationality but rather supports rethinking rationality in the wake of modernity" (10).

"Foundationalism refers to a conception of knowledge that emerged during the Enlightenment and sought to address the lack of certainty generated by the human tendency toward error and to overcome the inevitable, often destructive disagreements that followed... The assumptions of foundationalism, with its goal of establishing certain and universal knowledge, came to dominate intellectual pursuit in the modern era" (10-11).

I might say that I have no problem with looking for models that aim to encompass reality universally, so I am not so much opposed to the looking for universal foundations as to thinking of them as actual explanations for the world. Beyond our perceptions is only faith and mystery. But there is great usefulness in foundational language, as long as we recognize its limits.

Franke tells us that the book "maintains a focus on Jesus Christ as the center of the Christian faith" (12). I have actually heard of Christians who warn people who say such things. I understand what they mean--they see such rhetoric as a backdoor way of undercutting the Bible. But it seems obvious to me that this statement is beyond debate. As important as the Bible is, it is the word of God, while Jesus is the Word of God.

One controversial aspect of the book is apparently the possibility McLaren holds out (and Lessle Newbigin) that while the revelation in Jesus Christ is unique, it might be possible for some outside the faith to be saved (through him). This is a controversial issue. It is important to recognize that this position is not clearly heretical. It amounts to the old Wesleyan (and Quaker) sense that people will be judged according to the light they have. Beware, Wesleyans, of the extent to which your thinking has been influenced by other traditions without you/us realizing it. I take no official position myself on this issue, since I scarcely can speak with the authority of God. I can only say that I think a person with the heart of Christ would be hopeful that it is true.

Introduction and Chapter 0
Here McLaren positions the book in terms of audience. I like his style. He obviously likes G. K. Chesterton, and I can see elements of his style that mirror him. He tends to use hyperbole a lot and playfully puts himself down. In his "For Mature Audiences Only" he goes through all the reason why you might want to take the book back to the bookstore. Just to give you a sense of his style:

"Speaking of smoke, this book suggests that relativists are right in their denunciation of absolutism. It also affirms that absolutists are right in their denunciation of relativism. And then it suggests that they are both wrong because the answer lies beyond both absolutism and relativism. I'll bet that sounds like nonsense to nine of 10 readers, which should bring the words store credit to mind" (38).

At the end of Chapter 0 he assumes you have either taken the book back to the store before you got there and checked the box agreeing that you agree to put up with the strangeness of the book. Then he tells us who he is really writing the book for: people who are about to leave Christianity and spiritual seekers attracted to Jesus who don't think there's any room in Christianity for them (39).

Lots of great quotes and partial insights into McLaren's personality, but let me stick to some thoughts:

The approach of the book, "which might be called postcritical, seeks to find a way to embrace the good in many traditions and historic streams of Christian faith, and to integrate them, yielding a new, generous, emergent approach that is greater than the sum of its parts" (18).

The word emergent throws some people off. Beware again that labelology is bad thinking! You cannot logically dismiss an idea by labelling it. If there are bad things about emergent thought or some who call themselves emergent it is because there are bad things about emergent thought and about some who call themselves emergent. Labelling someone as "emergent" does not separate the good from the bad.

McClaren believes the Apostle's and Nicene Creeds (28) and "(this is so Protestant) that Scripture itself remains above the creeds and that the Holy Spirit may use Scripture to tweak our creedal understandings and emphases from time to time." He hasn't said anything that will allow you to call him unorthodox yet and certainly he has said nothing yet that a Wesleyan can object to.

This is a great postmodern statement--and it is exactly the attitude I think we should all have: "I'm sure I am wrong about many things, although I'm not sure exactly which things I'm wrong about. I'm even sure I'm wrong about what I think I'm right about in at least some cases" (20-21).

He quotes with approval the late Stanley Grenz quoting the late Hans Frei: "My own vision of what might be propitious for our day, split as we are, not so much into denominations as into schools of thought, is that we need a kind of generous orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism...and an element of evangelicalism" (23-24). The mention of liberalism is scary, I know, but didn't the liberals of the early twentieth century pay more attention to helping the needy than the conservatives did? OK, there, I've found at least one liberal thing where they were more Christian than the conservatives. We'll have to see where McLaren takes that thought...

I should give you McLaren's somewhat unique understanding of orthodoxy. It is quite postmodern, but I think we can and should mostly go with it: "To link orthodoxy with a practice, as the previous paragraph does, further makes this book seem ridiculous because many orthodoxies have always and everywhere assumed that orthodoxy (right thinking and opinion about the gospel) and orthopraxy (right practice of the gospel) could and should be separated... In contrast... Absurdly (to some at least), this book seems to approach orthodoxy as a tool or means to achieve orthopraxy. You want to know the rules, not so you can blow whistles as a referee, but so you can have a lot of glorious good clean fun as a player, throwing passes and making assists and sinking three-pointers and layups without fouling out. In sum, this book seems orthopraxy as the point of orthodoxy--again, a concept so unorthodox as to encourage a good many readers to abandon this book right now" (30-31).

There are some American Christian traditions that are almost entirely oriented around ideas and cognitive things. Indeed, they are the power holders in neo-evangelicalism since the 40's. These are groups where "orthodoxy could be articulated and debated by scholars or officials who had little responsibility to actually live by or live out the orthodoxy they defended" (30-31). Again, as an aside to those in the Wesleyan tradition, that is not us. We have always emphasized behavior and personal piety as equally important to our ideas. Other traditions might decry McLaren on these points, but we should applaud him.

Final thought for the introductory stuff is that McLaren is obviously a pretty smart guy, no matter what he says of himself. Disagree with him we may, but it seems is heart is in the right place, and that is far more important to God than whether his head is correct on every issue... at least that's what we Wesleyans believe.


matthew said...

I too finally got around to reading this book (last year) after hearing so much controversy surrounding BM. I was sorta dumbfounded as to why so many people don't like the guy. Some of his points were provocative, but I just consider that good writing. As a Wesleyan pastor, I really enjoyed the book.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I am glad that Wesleyans can affirm someone's heart, meaning, 'work', without any reason for doing so...that seems real practical for "practical reasons".

Jared said...

Thank you so much for showing generosity. I am a part of a sister Wesleyan tribe and have been disgusted at how little generosity has been shown to McLaren and others.

Brad Harris said...

Really, You got to be kidding about McLaren.


At Stand to Reason, four issues have formed the watershed of our concern18 with the EV and larger ECM. Let me highlight three: 1) the cross, 2) the authority of the Bible, and 3) the nature of truth. Of course, we are not alone in raising these concerns.19

I will not spend time here laying out and defending an evangelical position for each issue. This has been done elsewhere. Rather, I will spend my time (very briefly) highlighting examples of the kind of things EV leaders are saying in regards to each.

Concern #1: The Cross
My first area of concern is the cross. Here we ask questions like "What is the meaning of the atonement?"20 and "Did Jesus actually pay for or purchase anything on the cross?" How are EV leaders answering?

Brian McLaren addresses the cross in his book, The Story We Find Ourselves In. His fictional character Kerry, who happens to be a seeker, asks how Jesus fits in to God's story. Carol, a Christian, answers with a summary of substitutionary atonement: "Well, I believe that God sent Jesus into the world to absorb all the punishment for our sins. That's what the cross was all about. It was Jesus absorbing the punishment that all of us deserve. He became the substitute for all of us. As he suffered and died, all our wrongs were paid for, so all of us can be forgiven."21 Kerry responds: "For starters, if God wants to forgive us, why doesn't he just do it? How does punishing an innocent person make things better? That just sounds like one more injustice in the cosmic equation. It sounds like divine child abuse. You know?"22 Surprisingly, Kerry's "divine child abuse" analogy is not the most disturbing aspect of McLaren's narrative. What is is the absence of a biblically informed response from the other characters. As the narrative continues, the legitimacy of the analogy is never refuted, let alone examined or questioned.

Taken alone, this is worrisome. Coupled with McLaren's endorsement of Steve Chalke's book, The Lost Message of Jesus, this is cause for concern. But add to these the following account from McLaren's book, More Ready Than You Realize, and his views on the cross are a serious concern. So what does McLaren say there?

McLaren describes an encounter with George, a parishioner at his church. George believes in God but, by his own admission, is "still no closer to believing in Jesus Christ" because Jesus doesn't make sense, particularly his death on the cross. George asks Brian, "Why did Jesus have to die?"23 Upon hearing the question, McLaren is struck by two thoughts. First, George seemed to be asking the question in a way McLaren had never been asked. Second, McLaren does not think his Christian answers fit the way George is asking the question. McLaren asks George for two weeks to think about an answer. After wrestling with the question but finding no answer, McLaren shares the dilemma with his brother Peter saying, "…a couple of weeks ago I realized that I don't know why Jesus had to die."24 His brother quickly responded, "Well, neither did Jesus." After citing the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as evidence, Peter says, "sounds to me like Jesus didn't really understand why it had to be that way either. But the point wasn't understanding it; the point was doing what needed to be done."25

When it is time to meet with George again, McLaren recounts his brother's answer to George's question, "Why did Jesus have to die?" George, while acknowledging that Brian's response does not answer his question, believes this is actually better than an answer and tells Brian, "It kind of makes the question not really matter so much." And then McLaren concludes the account with this: "Over the next few weeks, George progressed in his faith to the point of becoming a committed follower of Jesus."26

Let me say three things in response. First, does McLaren actually think Jesus did not know why he had to die? What about Matthew 20:28? "…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." Or what about Jesus' words to his disciples at the Last Supper? "And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.'" Surely Jesus knew why he had to die. One cannot read the New Testament and conclude otherwise.

Second, does McLaren think one can become a "committed follower of Jesus" without knowing why Jesus had to die? This is certainly implied in his interaction with George. But is there not some minimal understanding needed of sin and the cross before one can place their trust in Christ? Is not an understanding of sin inextricably bound up with repentance? Again, I must side with the New Testament rather than McLaren.

Third, is McLaren being faithful to the gospel when a member of the flock entrusted to him asks him why Jesus has to die and he can give no answer? How can he allow George to walk away thinking this question doesn't really matter that much anymore? After reading McLaren, we are left with serious concerns regarding his view of the cross.

Concern #2: The Authority of the Bible
My second area of concern is the authority of the Bible. Here we ask questions like "Is the Bible inerrant?"27 and "In what sense the Bible is God's communication to us?" How are EV leaders answering?

Well, Doug Pagitt briefly discusses his views of the Bible in his book, Re-Imagining Spiritual Formation. Pagitt explains his church's view of the Bible: "…we refer to the Bible as a member of our community of faith—an essential member that must be listened to on all matters on which it speaks. This approach is meant to strengthen rather than diminish the Bible's authority."28 Alright, this is a start but we need more. Pagitt later states: "At bottom, our trust in the Bible does not depend on information that 'proves' the Bible to be credible. We believe the Bible because our hopes, ideas, experiences, and community of faith allow and require us to believe."29

So, according to Pagitt, viewing the Bible as a valuable member of the community strengthens its authority. But why should we think this strengthens its authority? According to Pagitt, the Bible is authoritative simply because the community "allows" and "requires" it to be. But if this is the case, who then has the real authority? It is not the Bible but the community. On Pagitt's view, the Bible's authority is grounded in the community, rather than in the fact it is the very word of God. Notice, it is nothing about the Bible itself that makes it authoritative on this view.

But, the Bible is what it is despite what one's community says about it. Our communities do not confer authority upon the Bible. The Bible is authoritative because of the kind of book it is.

Sadly, rather than strengthening the authority of the Bible, Pagitt's view actually removes that authority.

Concern #3: The Nature of Truth
My third concern is the nature of truth. Here we ask questions like "What is truth?" and "Does Christianity give us an accurate picture of the way the world really is, and can we know it?" How are EV leaders answering?

First, let me be fair to them. EV leaders have addressed the issue of truth in their "Official Response to Critics":

"…we would like to clarify, contrary to statements and inferences made by some, that yes, we truly believe there is such a thing as truth and truth matters – if we did not believe this, we would have no good reason to write or speak; no, we are not moral or epistemological relativists any more than anyone or any community is who takes hermeneutical positions – we believe that radical relativism is absurd and dangerous, as is arrogant absolutism…"30

Certainly, evangelical knee-jerk reactions to EV discussions of truth are unhelpful and maybe even irresponsible. But when I listen to this clarification and then I read some of their other claims about truth, I cannot help but wonder if EV leaders are responsible for much of the confusion on this issue. Let me demonstrate the confusion by looking at what Pagitt says about truth: "When we talk about truth, we're really considering two concepts: reality (the way things are) and truth (a person's perspective of that reality.)…No one has access to all reality in such a way that he can conclusively call his experience and understanding the truth."31

Notice first how Pagitt defines truth: a person's perspective on reality. Truth is my perspective or my take on things. In other words, Pagitt is saying that "truth" is merely what one believes. However, he goes on to say that "no one has access to all reality in such a way that he can conclusively call his experience and understanding the truth." So here he uses the word "truth" again. But does he mean "belief" in this instance as well? Certainly not. To see why, we simply substitute his original definition of truth for the word "truth" in this second statement. Doing so reads like this: "No one has access to reality in such a way that he can conclusively call his experience and understanding the belief" or "No one has access to reality in such a way that he can conclusively call his experience and understanding the person's perspective of reality." Aha. Something is wrong here. Pagitt has equivocated on his use of the word "truth." In one instance he uses the word truth to mean "belief" and in the next instance he uses the word truth to mean a correspondence to reality.

And this gets at an extremely important point when it comes to discussions of truth in EV. When critics raise concerns about truth, it is not enough for EV leaders to say, "We believe in truth, we believe in truth." First, in our postmodern context, we must know what they mean when they say truth. This is why I point people back to philosopher Scott Smith's book, Truth and the New Kind of Christian. Frankly, I do not think Smith's book has gotten enough attention in the ECM discussion. Smith provides careful analysis, with special attention given to both Jones's and McLaren's view of truth.

So here is my advice. For those outside of EV or the larger ECM, a simple dismissal of either by claiming they don't believe in absolute truth is inadequate. To them I say read Smith's book. For those inside EV or the larger ECM, a simple dismissal of critics' concerns about truth or simply claiming to believe in truth is inadequate. To them I say read Smith's book…and respond to his careful critique.


Opening the Door to Unorthodoxy
Now we come to my most serious concern regarding EV and their influence on the larger ECM: the real potential for a move away from historic Christian orthodoxy. Is there reason to worry about the Christian orthodoxy of EV leaders?

Again, let me be fair to the leaders of EV. They certainly claim Christian orthodoxy for themselves. Indeed, I do not claim that at this point in time, they are not orthodox in their views. From what I have read and heard from EV, I am not sure such a claim can be substantiated. Once again, my claim will be a more modest one. So first, let us look at their references to Christian orthodoxy.

In Reimagining Spiritual Formation, Doug Pagitt has a section in chapter five entitled "Avoiding Heresy," where he deals with the following question: "…how do we handle those times when people say things not in agreement with what the church has held to throughout the ages? In other words, how do we handle heresy?"32 Pagitt then goes on to describe how they answer the question in their local church community at Solomon's Porch. Committing themselves to "the guidance of the Holy Spirit," they "gently call on our Christian traditions to help clarify why a certain kind of thinking isn't really consistent with orthodoxy…if someone presents a position that was held in the past but has been rejected by orthodox Christianity, then someone else who knows the issue will provide the necessary context."33 So certainly, taken by itself, this passage implies that Pagitt holds to some view of Christian orthodoxy.

Tony Jones appeals to orthodoxy as well. On his blog he states, "I would judge historic orthodoxy on the grounds of these beliefs (to name a few): humanity of Jesus, divinity of Jesus, monotheism, trinitarianism, and inspiration of scripture."34 Furthermore, Jones recounts a recent visit to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

"Specifically, I was invited by the faculty of the International Center for Youth Ministry at Boyce College, and its director, Dave Adams…

We talked non-stop from the 11am till 4pm. We found points of agreement and points of difference. For them, it was significant that I personally affirmed the historic, physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ – in fact, when asked point-blank whether I could affirm it, my response was something like, 'Not only do I affirm it, I consider it the pivot point in the entire history of the cosmos.'"35

Given Pagitt and Jones's appeals to Christian orthodoxy, their 2004 seminar entitled "A New Theology for a New World" at the Emergent Convention in San Diego seems to offer a contradictory message. In that seminar, Jones begins this way: "We do not think this [the ECM] is about changing your worship service. We do not think this is about…how you structure your church staff. This is actually about changing theology. This about our belief that theology changes. The message of the gospel changes. It's not just the method that changes."36

The main line of argument as far as I could tell was this: as culture changes our understanding of God changes. There is an intersection between culture and theology and as we get new information from culture, be it through anthropology, biological science, or other disciplines37, our theological understandings must not merely be adjusted but changed. This is how we do postmodern theology. According to Jones, postmodern theology is 1) fluid – it's moving and we hold it loosely, 2) it is local, meaning there is no universal structure that guides the conversation for all time, and 3) it is temporary, meaning these things are changing faster than we can keep up with them. In contrast, "In the modern quest for universals, we tricked ourselves or deceived ourselves into thinking that theology is universal, absolute, it's for all time."38

In 2005, I attended the Emergent Convention in Nashville. This same seminar was offered, only Jones was unable to co-teach so Pagitt taught alone. In that session, Pagitt made the same argument. He talked about the need to "re-imagine" and "reconstruct" our theology because "we have a changing story" and "God's story is changing." Thus, "theology is inherently temporary" – it is "our current best guess."

During the Q&A, I asked a clarification question to make sure I understood Pagitt's view. I asked if his view implied that one day we may need to reconstruct our views about the very nature of God. For instance, the idea that Jesus is God Incarnate may actually be completely wrong (after all, it is only our current best guess) and we would need to reconstruct our view of Jesus and God. Here was Pagitt's answer: "Yeah, probably. Could be. I'm hoping it doesn't come to that. It's dangerous." He went on to say that we are already adjusting our concepts of God – there is an adjustment about who God is and what he is like. Thus, according to Pagitt, "the Trinity is not wrong but it may not be the only way to understand God."39

Again, I want to be fair to Pagitt. Elsewhere, he has attempted to clarify his views. In response to charges he denies the Trinity, Pagitt said the following in the comments section of Jones's blog:

[Pagitt will speak in both the first and third person here] "Also, Doug does not not believe in the Trinity. I have tried to be clear so many times on this; the Trinity is not something to be believed in, it is an explanation of how God interrelates. The language of 'not believing in something' is far too limited. It is fair to suggest that the third century version of how God relates is not the most accurate in light of what we currently know...

I simply suggest that the issues that were in place that caused the concept of the Trinity to be formed are no longer an issue. I am not suggesting a lesser understanding of God, or God not dwelling in Christ Jesus. I am suggesting that we not debate the Trinity – that concept did its job, rather we need to have Christian understanding of God that fits our day as well as the Trinity fit the third century.

I am not saying it is wrong, but it is not complete. No view is complete. That is why all belief is progressive.

Also, Doug thinks that there ought be no Dogma. There should be nothing that is not on the table of reconsideration. We will not be able to reconsider everything at the same time, or even think that all things need to be reconsidered, but nothing is exempt from reconsideration."40

At best, Pagitt is confused and contradicts himself. At worst, Pagitt will eventually displace the Trinity in his own theology in spite of his current affirmation he does "not not believe in the Trinity."

And what of Jones? He seems to bristle a bit at the suggestion he is moving away from Christian orthodoxy. In a recent blog post in which Jones responds to comments by pastor/theologian Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, 41 Jones offers this challenge: "…I'd like to hear how, exactly, I am moving away from orthodoxy. Seriously. This isn't just a question for Keller, but for all who continue to say this. I can't speak for anyone else in emergent (or Emergent Village), but I can speak for myself. I continue to look at my theology, and to write about it, and I have not strayed from traditional Christian orthodoxy."42

I think Jones can be answered with his own words. Indeed, he makes a similar claim to the one we just saw from Pagitt. In a blog post on the topic of the Trinity, Jones says the following:

"…my point in all this is that the doctrine of the Trinity is still on the table. Some people, it seems to me, would like for us to no longer debate certain 'sacred' doctrines -- the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the nature of scripture, the nature of marriage etc. And these persons tend to get very jumpy when emergent-types discuss these sacrae doctrinae, especially in books and at conferences that are being taped. 'This is dangerous,' they say.

I say it's dangerous to stop talking about these things, and it leads to a hegemony among those who already control the seminaries, colleges, magazines, radio stations, conferences, publishing houses, and magazines. We will continue to debate such things" (emphasis in the original).43

Now, if Jones wants to keep every doctrine on the table, why does he defend himself from charges of unorthodoxy? If he wants to remain orthodox, every doctrine cannot remain on the table of reconsideration. Orthodoxy is limited by its very nature. To hold to some bare essentials of orthodoxy (no matter how bare they are) just means there is a limit to what you can believe and still call yourself orthodox.

Listen to me closely. I am not saying that Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt are unorthodox at this moment in time. I am not saying they will inevitably become unorthodox. I hope they do not. What I am saying is this: the door to unorthodoxy is now open. And given their argument for the reconstruction of theology, I cannot see any in-principle way Jones and Pagitt can close that door.

Spencer Burke and the Future of Emergent Village
Let us turn our attention to a new name: Spencer Burke. If you are not familiar with Burke you can find a recounting of his story from conservative Evangelicalism into the ECM in the book, Stories of Emergence. Burke has been a recognized leader in the ECM. He is co-founder of, an online community. He is the author of a book entitled Making Sense of Church, released under Youth Specialties' Emergent line of books. He is the host of an event called "Soularize: A Learning Party," which his press kit claims "is the original postmodern/emergent annual conference."44 In addition, he has been a featured speaker at past Emergent Conventions.

Recently, Spencer Burke's newest book, A Heretic's Guide to Eternity, was released. It is aptly named. Now, before I discuss Burke's main claims, allow me to wonder out loud with you: Does Burke's book give us a glimpse of the possible future of EV? Is Burke an example of what EV's open door to unorthodoxy will ultimately lead to? Who or what in EV can and will stop such a slide? Let us look at Burke's argument.

In the introduction, Burke frames his discussion this way: "At this point in our history, I believe God is to be questioned as much as obeyed, created again and not simply worshipped. Our views must be continually revised, reconsidered, and debated."45 Thus, Burke believes we need heretics to move us forward and proclaim new views. But make no mistake. Burke is not calling us to move farther up and further in. He clearly states, "I am not merely seeking to put a new spin on old beliefs; I am actually declaring that there are new ways of believing when it comes to the Christian story."46

Later, Burke argues the Christian view of God has evolved through history, it has progressed, that nothing in religion stays the same.47 Why? Because "Our religions are practiced within our cultural horizons, not outside of them."48 For Burke, culture is the driving force behind our changing views. This line of argument sounds identical to Jones and Pagitt's in their workshop, "A New Theology for a New World."

Burke then goes on to outline his new views. In short, Burke claims he is a universalist, a panentheist, and denies the personhood of God saying, "I'm not sure I believe in God exclusively as a person anymore either."49 There is much more we could say about this book. But rather than offer more of my own critique, I defer to someone within the ECM. Here is Scot McKnight's sobering assessment of Burke:

"…I have to say the following — and I don't do so with anything but sadness. The emerging movement is proud of creating a safe environment for people to think and to express their doubts. Partly because of what I do for a living (teach college students), I am sympathetic to the need for such safe environments. But, having said that, the emerging movement has also been criticized over and over for not having any boundaries. Frankly, some of the criticism is justified. I want to express my dismay today over what I think is crossing the boundaries. I will have to be frank; but I have to be fair. Here's how I see this book's theology as a Christian theologian. The more I ponder what Spencer does in this book, the more direct I have become...

Is Spencer a "heretic"? He says he is, and I see no reason to think he believes in the Trinity from reading this book. That's what heresy means to me. Denial of God's personhood flies in the face of everything orthodox. To say that you believe in the creedal view of God as Father, Son, and Spirit and deny "person" is to deny the Trinitarian concept of God.

Is Spencer a "Christian"? He says he is. What is a Christian? Is it not one who finds redemption through faith in Christ, the one who died and who was raised? If so, I see nothing in this book that makes me think that God's grace comes to us through the death and resurrection of Christ. Grace seems to be what each person is "born into" in Spencer's theses in this book. That means that I see no reason in this book to think Spencer believes in the gospel as the NT defines gospel (grace as the gift of God through Christ by faith)."

McKnight rightly points out some things are not left on the table for reconsideration. He closes with this admonition:

"Spencer, you're a good guy. But I have to say this to you: Go back to church. Go back to the gospel of Jesus — crucified and raised. Let the whole Bible shape all of your theology. Listen to your critics. Integrate a robust Christology, a robust death-and-resurrection gospel, and a full Trinitarian theology back into your guide to eternity."50

My sincere hope is that McKnight will not have to offer the same correction to the leaders of EV in the near or very far off future.

Now, once again, let me be fair to Jones, et al. The leaders of EV do not hold all of Burke's views, nor endorse all of them. Jones has issued the following caveat regarding Burke: "Spencer is in the emerging church, in a broader sense, but he is not in the leadership of Emergent Village. I count him as a friend, but that does not mean that I endorse everything that he says or writes. The same goes for others in emergent."51 However, I wish Jones would say more. I wish someone within EV would say more but at this point, I have yet to hear any EV leader raise even one concern with Burke's heretical views. Why, when such a prominent voice in the ECM has put forth such ideas, has no one in EV responded?

Lest I be charged with making some argument from silence, let me offer this: far from raising concerns, Brian McLaren endorses Burke's book. In the foreword, McLaren states, "even in a book with 'heretic' in the title, I believe any honest reader can find much truth worth seeking."52 Which truths is McLaren referring to? Burke's views on the personhood of God? Burke's views on the nature of the gospel? We don't know and he doesn't say. Rather, McLaren leaves "you to figure out what that is when you turn the page and read what's been fermenting in Spencer's and Barry's hearts."53 In the absence of the slightest concerns raised over Burke's book, McLaren's endorsement is worrisome. Indeed, the potential for EV to drift toward Burke's unorthodox views is of serious concern.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks Brad. I'll have to read this in stages :-)

I'll see what I think of Generous Orthodoxy as I move further into it.