Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Some thoughts on the emerging church and eschatology

I've spent some of the past few days sifting through an incredibly weighty amount of literature on the emerging church, in preparation for a seminar I'm giving next year critiquing the emerging church's view of Scripture.

I guess I should make as an immediate caveat that I'm fairly novice to this area of Christendom, and that there seems to be an incredible amount of heterogeneity in what I'm reading. However, there are a few trends that I can see coming through.

The first is an underlying discontent with traditional conservative eschatology. I guess I'm fairly sympathetic with the emergent writers at this point. It seems to me that, since the Reformation, there's been such an effort made to untangle justification and sanctification as two different things (as opposed to the traditional Roman Catholic syncretistic view) that there's an overwhelming emphasis on justification and relatively little said about living as a Christian now. It's a caricature of the view but, it does sometimes seem that conservatives say (remember with good motives in wanting to highlight assurance, and so on), "OK, now we're saved. All we have to do is wait for the Lord Jesus to return." The gospel is caricatured as individual salvation and how to make sure that we avoid hell. Bible study is flattened to make every passage of the Bible say the same as Romans. Sermons are not applied to every day life. And all this has often meant that conservative Christians (and remember I speak as a conservative!) have been slow to be culturally engaged, slow to be involved in politics and slow to be involved in the alleviation of poverty and suffering worldwide.

In my opinion, one of the good things about the charismatic movement is that it seems to often have a fairer emphasis that eternal life has already started once a person becomes a Christian. Yes, we have the certain hope of heaven to come - but the Lord is powerfully at work now by his Spirit to free you from the effects on sin and to make you more like the character of Jesus. A more Biblical balance is that the kingdom of God, that Jesus so often wrote about, is not merely in the eschatological future, but exists now too. And it has implications way beyond just the eternal fate of individuals (although it is not less than this).

But the emergent writers seem to want to take things one step further (in, I think, a knee-jerk reaction to the conservatism I've described). Many of these writers seem unwilling to speak about eternity at all. To them, it's much more important being an authentic Christian now, in the present. Any talk of eternity seems to smack of being too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use. The Bible is reduced to being merely something that is intended to equip God's people for good works. Whether it's authoritative or infallible or inerrant doesn't really matter to these folks - in fact, these discussions are unnecessary and distracting from the task of seeking to live an authentic Christian life.

I think all this misses the point somewhat. There's some helpful critiquing of conservativism here (in particular as we think about our Bible studies and preaching). But wanting to merely see the Bible as a series of artefacts designed to spur us to good works is a flawed position:

- For one, I think it misunderstands what it means to be a Christian. I remember hearing a seminar by Michael Ramsden a couple of years ago (online audio here), where he demonstrated that Christianity is not rooted epistemologically in thinking, existentially in feeling or pragmatically in doing. It's true that we should be known for the things that we do, but Christ did not come to simply tell us how to live. Christianity is rooted in the person of Christ himself, and the life we have, we live in him.

- For another thing, most of the Bible's teaching on how we should live is rooted in doctrinal teaching about God himself (Romans 6:11-14, Colossians 3:1-4, the whole of Ephesians!). To throw out the doctrine leads us into a form of legalism whereby we separate our works now from what Christ has done and the Spirit he has given us.

- The most radical Christian lives are lived with eternity in view. Once I am safe in the knowledge that my eternal place with God is secure, that frees me up to serve others in love. This is the thrust of 2 Corinthians 4-5.

The emerging church - rightly, I think - longs for Christians to engage more and live more lovingly and authentically in the world. It's something I often feel myself. But I think the alternatives that they advocate are a severe case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.


Chris said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head here man.

Eschatology really is pervasive isnt it. I've been wondering for a while whether all questions & worries re life & doctrine really hang on your eschatology (due to developing nature of both salvation and world history).

I also reckon you've prob put your finger on my schizophrenia in both charismatic and conservative churches - I've been unsure where I 'belong'. I've somehow followed a charismatic theology of gifts but a conservative line on eschatology (a paralysing combination?).

For example, I absolutely loved the NFI church in oxford, but I was amazed how differently they preached 1 John 1 (on walking in the light) to how I'd heard it before. All wonderful stuff, quite unnerving really, but rested on a whole load of other stuff, all in the end about my life now in a different eschatology. Similarly, I used to think the MLJ/Virgo vs Stott difference on Romans 6-7 wasnt too important - maybe it really really is?

Anyway, I remember thinking at the time that (lazily & maybe sinfully, cos I think I probably will agree in the end - which means a harsher line on my sin now.) that I couldnt really afford the time to totally rethink all that, so thought I'd church elsewhere.

thebluefish said...

Helpful. Where u teaching on this?

gazleaney said...

I'm reading a book by Brian McLaren where he touches on this subject. It seemed to me that a lot stems from their view of God. Rather than being in sovereign control, God created the world with freedom and limits, and he cares for it as it develops (presumably being as surprised by we are by what happens).

So the future cannot be secure. Yet BM turns this into the very reason for getting involved in the kingdom of God here and now. The prophets and even Jesus did not predict the future, but explained how it would turn out if we didn't live by kingdom principles. So we have to get involved to make the future better.

He also reinterprets Revelation and the apocalyptic statements from Jesus to political statements about the Jewish situation at the time, written to look like they were about the end of the world.

You can understand why, from his way of looking at things. With that kind of view (and for the reasons you spelled out in your post), it makes sense to see passages about the future in terms of the here and now instead. But it all adds up to a pretty rubbish view of the future. It isn't perfect. There will still be suffering and conflict, but it will be for a purpose.

Emerging church writers say they want a bigger view of God, but the more I read, the smaller he gets. And humans get bigger and more important.

peterdray said...

Cheers lads, all very helpful.

I think what this is teaching me is the danger of presuppositions affecting your theology. It's interesting that making a dogmatic point on witness (actually perhaps quite a modernist assumption that reaching postmoderns requires a certain form of behaviour) leads to ditching all sorts of theological convictions.

I'll keep writing as I think more about this (it's for a Word Alive seminar!)

Dave K said...

I think you are right about the importance of eschatology. When you do read emerging writers they do seem to have flattened everything out quite a bit. Which now you mention it perhaps sheds some light on Rob Bell's love of Rabbinic exegesis.

However, I can't help thinking that laying behind the discontent with trad eschatology is a problem with God's judgment of sinful humanity.
Perhaps you could contrast an emerging church emphasis on the goodness of creation and humanity which implies that change is achievable in the individual and world, and a conservative emphasis on the fallenness of creation which needs to be destroyed and (in concert with a spirit/matter dualism) means that anything that happens now, except individual conversion, is a of no eternal significance. Both extremes appeal to those of us who don't like to have to change too much. One extreme finds the cross slightly uncomfortable and the other doesn't really know what to do with the resurrection.

Hmm much to think about.