Emergent Church Movement and the Gospel: Open Source Theology (part 1)
Rob Wilkerson posted a couple of interesting critiques of the emerging church movement and of Open Source Theology in particular on his blog Miscellanies on the Gospel. He has given permission to repost the articles and following discussion on this site. The source links are: Emergent Church Movement and the Gospel: Open Source Theology and The Emergent Church Movement and the Gospel: A Response to Andrew Perriman.
It’s happening again, that feeling like you’re being sucked into the vortex of a black hole of theology. That black hole is the Emergent Church. It is a vortex because it means that when you get sucked into it, you put on the mantle of critic, apologetic, polemicist, and pastor, of course. I don’t like being the first three, but sometimes that is part of the last job. Pastoring is shepherding, keeping the sheep away from danger, away from pasture that may not be good for them, and water that might poison them.
Paul Schafer, over at Thoughts on the Christian Life, floated me an email about the website popularly, yet strangely, known as Open Source Theology. Now if you’ve never heard of this before, I want to put before you what the goal of the website is, along with a few other definitions of what Open Source Theology actually is.
First, the website asks, "What is Open Source Theology?" Here is the answer.
So, what we gather from Open Source Theology is that it seems based primarily on a concept of computer software known as ‘open source.’ According to the OpenSource.Org website,
To be sure, Open Source Theology, as far as I can tell, doesn’t necessarily derive its name from this software. Yet everywhere I look to find definition about this theology, it does to the gospel and theology for Christians just what the software hopes to do for programmers.
Now, many of you may not be software lovers, or programmers. And most of you are happy just to be able to know how to turn on your computers and log on to your email server. Read what the Open Source software hopes to accomplish. Why read these paragraphs? Because the comparison to Open Source Theology is frightening. The Open Source Theology seems to be heading in the same direction with Scripture that Open Source software is with programming.
Sounds alot like the aims of the software, doesn’t it? Listen to the rest of the description.
Why my snide remarks? Sorry if I’m letting my crucified sarcasm rear its ugly head again! You see, the Emerging Church has made an exodus out of postmodernism, seeing the many problems inherent in it. And their OST has come as the result of an attempt to chart where the Emerging Church is going.
Surely you see the problem then in the definitions and explanations above? Though it has weathered the gale storm of postmodernism and has come out on the other side, albeit living in makeshift shelters, sitting around the campfires like spiritual refugees (not my words, but the words from the rest of the article above), the problem is still inherent within the refugees. Let me put it this way:
You can take the Emergent Church member out of postmodernism, but you can’t take the postmodernism out of the Emergent Church member.
The truth of this statement can be seen in the very way in which the Emerging Church and OST hopes to handle the gospel, the Scriptures, and theology itself. They want to rework it, redefine it, reshape it, add to it, and do everything to it that Open Source software hopes to do to programming. That’s where the danger to the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ comes in.
If the focus turns to utilizing what amounts to postmodernized methods of handling the Word of God (e.g. there are no absolutes), then when you attempt to interpret the Scriptures and make a conclusion on anything, there are no absolute interpretations or conclusions. Thus, you are floating around in an endless state of limbo, like a parachuter with no place to land, forever stuck in the air. And what is more, OST unwittingly deceives its thinkers into thinking that in such a state of limbo you can actually ‘apply’ your theology. To be sure, OST’s "Rules of Engagement" clearly state that this is not what they want. They expressly desire,
But this becomes nearly impossible, as the "Rules" themselves seem to imply when they state:
All of this is really dangerous for the gospel. Why? What are you going to tell the lost person who needs a Savior? If you allow for the gospel, like any other focus of theology, to be open-ended - to be modular - asking those who handle it to be open-minded, then the gospel loses its decisive, conclusive truth, and therefore has no more power save. No, OST would never say that it is ashamed of the gospel. It would agree with Paul on that. It would merely say that they are afraid (or ‘ashamed’ to put it biblically) of making a ‘systematized’ conclusion about the gospel.
My fear is that the EC and OST movements are not moving forward, but moving backward…backwards into the post-enlightenment period when the higher criticism of Scriptures began formulating in Germany and floating towards Britain and America. Scripture and theology, and the gospel especially, became merely ‘talking points,’ rather than truths on which to live and breathe and act.
The caveat to all of what I’ve said above is that I may have misunderstood the movement and its concurrent theology. That said, I did pastor five miles from one of the mainstays of the Emerging Church Movement - Mars Hill Church near Grand Rapids, MI, where Rob Bell is pastor. I watched over the course of two years as the Scriptures became all of the sudden ‘not so clear’ on particular issues anymore. And now it has come to be associated with a movement that seems to want to put everything on the table for discussion and rehashing again. That’s terribly disturbing.
What ever happened to the creeds? Those documents that were forged out of years of rehashing and discussion…those documents that were formulated in the fires of heresy…those documents on which the gospel of Jesus Christ stands. Why the ‘felt need’ to go back and put all that on the table again for another round of endless discussions? Here’s a thought: what if we just accepted them (since without them there is no gospel of Jesus Christ), and believed them, and studied by them, and preached according to them, and applied all of it to advance the kingdom of God?
If I’m off base here, get with me and straighten me out. I’m ‘open minded’ enough to see where I’m wrong…at least I believe I am!
posted by Rob Wilkerson at 6/8/2005 10:44:00 AM
Hi, Rob, I’m responsible for the open source theology website. I noticed a link to your blog in the logs. I hope you don’t mind me responding to some of the points in your challenging critique. Whether this is a matter of ‘straightening you out’ I don’t know, but I hope it at least contributes to a useful interaction.
1. I don’t follow your ‘in limbo’ argument. It starts from a remark about struggling to ‘articulate biblical faith in the space between God and the world’. This has to do with the framework within which we engage with the world, do mission, etc. The argument is that too much theologizing has been a response to internal issues, too little has been done in response to the actual challenges that believers face as people who, like it or not, are immersed in a thoroughly non-Christian and anti-theistic culture. It was not a vertical metaphor – your parachutist suspended been earth and heaven. It was a horizontal metaphor, a recognition of the gulf that exists between the committed, God-centred community and the rest of the world and our manifest failure to communicate across that gulf.
2. Why the sarcasm? It is ugly, as you admit, and it is exactly the sort of thing that has driven huge numbers of people away from contemporary evangelicalism. The emerging church is motivated in all sorts of different ways, not all of them laudable. But most people associated with it would claim that they have a deep desire to be better followers of Christ. Sarcasm won’t win them back: it will only reinforce them in their search for the liberating, life-giving grace of God outside the walls of the evangelical movement.
3. I disagree that the emerging church is committed to a relativistic postmodern hermeneutic. The issue is not whether there are absolutes or not, but whether we are allowed to bring into question culturally and historically determined presuppositions about what scripture is actually saying, how themes are to be prioritized, and so on. Emerging theology is not stuck in an ‘endless state of limbo’: it is going through a process of re-examining the grounds of faith in order to arrive at something that (we believe) will be more not less compelling than what we had before. But the only way to do this is to ask questions. Of course, that only makes sense if you see the need. A lot of people have simply become so uncomfortable with the mind-set of contemporary evangelicalism that they have had no choice but to pursue this course and trust that it will lead them to solid ground.
4. I do agree that this is disturbing. We are all disturbed one way or another. I’m sure you won’t like the suggestion that the emerging church has a prophetic edge to it, but surely we must allow that the church, even the evangelical church, needs to be disturbed out of its complacency by the voice of God at times?
5. You may well be right in your fears about the gospel – for the time being at least. If the emerging church is seriously asking itself, ‘What exactly is this “gospel” that we are proclaiming to the world?’, the likelihood is that there will be some loss of clarity and conviction. My own view is that this uncertainty has to be gone through. The hope is that we are working towards a renewal of clarity and conviction. The emerging church would argue that modern evangelicalism has been so focussed on a narrow, highly individualized, ‘reformed’ gospel that it has neglected the larger epistemological, historical and narrative context to which that gospel belongs.
6. As for the creeds, why should we suppose that the church fathers, who had their own presuppositions and prejudices, were in a position to provide a definitive summary of the faith for all time? The same applies to the reformers. Creeds are always shaped in response to particular questions, particular debates, in particular intellectual environments, and they are inevitably limited and distorted by these factors. We have our own debates, to which we must be allowed to respond intelligently and faithfully. Having said that, I detect rather a high regard for the creeds of the ancients in the emerging church.
By Andrew Perriman, at 9:29 AM