Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The First Step Toward a Solution

This paper is already very long and I am fearful that rushing to a solution will not do justice to a topic that needs much more consideration. Just coming to an understanding of what EC is and where it is going is difficult enough without heaping on a bunch of proposed solutions. Perhaps time and circumstance will avail themselves for more to be written on this in the future. For now, I would like to propose one simple solution.

Carla Rolfe recently posted a simple question on the emergentNo blog:

Is the written word of God, for you, in your life as a believer, the final authority in all matters of your faith, and practice? This is a straightforward question that simply requires a yes or no answer. You may feel free however to expound on your answer, if you like.

One sample answer she received read like this:

I'll take a shot at that Carla. God is the final authority in my life. I can't confine to the bible because he clearly is so much bigger than the bible itself and of course he is God and can really do as he pleases. The bible is not the beginning and end of God.

To which Carla responded:

So then your answer to this question: “Is the written word of God, for you, in your life as a believer, the final authority in all matters of your faith, and practice?” would be NO, correct? Just trying to establish some basics here.

The reply:

I suppose it would. The bible is not the final authority in my life God is. Do you believe that God can only do what is mentioned in the bible?[1]

I am neither qualified nor do I particularly desire to get into a debate of epistemology, but this little exchange seems to typify what is the essential flaw I observe in EC. After reading all the blogs and talking with relatives and friends embracing EC at various levels, I am often left with the impression that the Bible, although given a respectful nod, just doesn’t really matter that much anymore (at least in practice). The EC Christian wants his Bible – but tradition, listening to others, expressing himself in art, feeding the poor, and having conversations about what he thinks about God, are just as important to him, if not more so. In fact, this freedom from an authoritative text is really the best thing that has ever happened to him![2]

Thus, Sola Scriptura, the way it is portrayed in EC circles, is a hated enemy; the kind of club that power hungry despots use to stay in command.[3] Much like their Open Theist cousins, their view of God is too flexible to allow for Him to be “bound” by His own revelation. Of course I do not believe this is an accurate portrayal of the doctrine of Scripture Alone – just as inaccurate as most EC portrayals of reformed theology, conservative church life, true preaching, social conservatism and a bundle of other things! But with this pre-supposition firmly in place, along with all the “outs” used to avoid real conversation, I wonder if we will ever convince an EC Christian otherwise?

To be blunt, I think that I am pastoring a church that is, in many respects, what EC wants: relevant. I do not see taking place in my fellowship the kind of critiques and generalizations that are most often levelled by EC at conservative, reformed evangelicals. We began with a Bible study of 6 Christians and now find well over 100 in attendance. We started meeting in homes and now meet (quite contentedly and purposefully!) in a gymnasium. I preach for over 50 minutes twice a Sunday and people keep asking for more. We have seen people saved by God! We have baptized them. Some have moved on from us – most under good circumstances. Some have been disciplined and restored to full fellowship.

Our men meet together and talk openly concerning their battles with sin and who they want to be in the Lord. The ladies do the same. Our kids love to come to church on Sundays and Wednesdays. The stinking teenagers sit in the front row and are usually the last to leave – so many good questions! Some of our strongest leaders are “college and career” aged young men. We sing old hymns, and new songs with a 5 piece band. We recite ancient creeds and study church history. We write new songs. We pray every week, joyfully, together for nearly an hour (of prayer, not Bible study!). Members show up early and pray on Sundays for the Lord’s blessing on our services.

We evangelize our families and friends and strangers and some of the millions of people from all over the world that the Lord has brought to our city. We actually tell them they are lost and must repent and believe on Jesus. We have three men in seminary training to be pastors. We are trying to plant another church downtown Toronto by 2009. The Lord has given us more money than we need. We are growing slowly and steadily, month by month, in a cultural context that is antagonistic, at best, to the Gospel. And we have all kinds of problems and shortcomings and faults and sins that need to be fixed and Lord willing, one day, will be. And I am telling you all of this to say that not once, for one second, would we in any fashion consider ourselves to be emerging out of anything! If you pinned us down we would say we are trying to be submergent – into the Truth of the Bible.

So, even though there might be a lot of overlap in appearance between EC and us in how we “do” church, there remains this one great difference: what we do and how we do it is determined by the Word of God, the Bible. The EC leaders I have read cannot say the same thing. It is “the Word and...” That means the final authority in determining what is good and what is bad is intuition, not revelation.[4] The Bible is not what directs, forms and shapes EC. And without this anchor, that ship will float wherever the prevailing winds of the day choose to blow.

But the Bible is enough. The Bible is more than enough!

For the Bible tells us to pray and preach and study and evangelize and talk to children and love teenagers and give our money away and plant churches and teach one another and hold each other accountable and fellowship with each other and love each other and deal with sin. And even though there remains so much more to do, my land, just to do these things reasonably well is something quite commendable![5] And when I look around at sister churches here in Canada I see churches that are different in a thousand ways from us and yet foundationally the same; that one common denominator being a firm commitment to the Word of God as a final authority in all matters of doctrine and practice.

It is not very fancy or novel or cutting edge. It doesn’t require the creation of new words or new forms or new ways. It is all rather humbling... and absolutely relevant. We pray; preach, worship, love and let God decide if it will be blessing or trials. As much as EC may want to set up a relevant, failsafe method of reaching this culture, I am happy to put my trust in a relevant, failsafe God. He will do as He pleases and it will be both right and good.

The truth is that a few, a very few, thoughtful men, whose thinking consists in negation from first to last, and whose minds are tortured with a chronic twist or curve, which turns them into intellectual notes of interrogation, have laid the basis of this system; these few honest doubters have been joined by a larger band who are simply restless; and these again by men who are inimical to the spirit and the truths of Scripture, and together they have formed a coterie, and called themselves the leaders of the thought of the age. They have a following, it is true; but of whom does it consist?

When a prophet comes forward he must speak as from the Lord, and if he cannot do that, let him go back to his bed. It is quite certain, dear friends, that now or never we must be decided, because the age is manifestly drifting. You cannot watch for twelve months without seeing how it is going down the tide; the anchors are pulled up, and the vessel is floating to destruction. It is drifting now, as near as I can tell you, south-east, and is nearing Cape Vatican, and if it drives much further in that direction it will be on the rocks of the Roman reef. We must get aboard her, and connect her with the glorious steam-tug of gospel truth, and drag her back. I should be glad if I could take her round by Cape Calvin, right up into the Bay of Calvary, and anchor her in the fair haven which is close over by the cross. God grant us grace to do it. We must have a strong hand, and have our steam well up, and defy the current; and so by God's grace we shall both save this age and the generations yet to come.[6]

“You may spoil the gospel by substitution. You have only to withdraw from the eyes of the sinner the grand object which the Bible proposes to faith--Jesus Christ--and to substitute another object in His place… and the mischief is done.

“You may spoil the gospel by addition. You have only to add to Christ, the grand object of faith, some other objects as equally worthy of honor, and the mischief is done.

“You may spoil the gospel by disproportion. You have only to attach an exaggerated importance to the secondary things of Christianity, and a diminished importance to the first things, and the mischief is done.

“Lastly, but not least, you may completely spoil the gospel by confused and contradictory directions… Confused and disorderly statements about Christianity are almost as bad as no statement at all. Religion of this sort is not evangelical.”[7]

[1] The whole exchange can be found here Emphasis original.

[2] Note these comments by Rob Bell and his wife from a recent Christianity Today interview: “The Bells started questioning their assumptions about the Bible itself—‘discovering the Bible as a human product,’ as Rob puts it, rather than the product of divine fiat. ‘The Bible is still in the center for us,’ Rob says, ‘but it's a different kind of center. We want to embrace mystery, rather than conquer it.’

‘I grew up thinking that we've figured out the Bible," Kristen says, "that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like life is big again—like life used to be black and white, and now it's in color.’ For more of this see Appendix Four or Accessed on April 4, 2006.

[3] “In the recent past we generally began our apologetic by arguing for the Bible’s authority, then used the Bible to prove our other points. In the future we’ll present the Bible less like evidence in a court case and more like works of art in an art gallery. The Bible will become valuable not for what it proves, but for what it reveals.” Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel (Grand Rapids, Michigan: YS/Zondervan, 2003) 101. This quote is of McLaren.

[4] ...intuition that is often cloaked in spiritual language. Regardless of the vocabulary, it is still intuition – listening to the gut to affirm what is true and what ought to be done.

[5] It also warns us not to do a lot of things!

[6] Excerpts taken from “The Need of Decision for the Truth.” A College Address, by C. H. Spurgeon first published in the March 1874 Sword and Trowel Magazine and available online at Also, see more quotes from this timely sermon in Appendix 3.

[7] J. C. Ryle as quoted by C. J. Mahaney on April 7, 2006 at


Darryl said...

I don't know if you can take a comment from Emergent No, or a quote from Pagitt, and infer from those that the ec thinks the ec craves "freedom from an authoritative text" and that the Bible "doesn’t really matter that much anymore (at least in practice)".

I think you're right that the role of Scripture is an important issue in the ec - actually, in the church in general. My experience is that the ec is highly driven by a desire to be faithful to Scripture in both belief and practice.

Jamie Arpin-Ricci said...

I agree with Darryl. Having been a part of the very discussion you quoted from E-No, it seems as though you have chosen one of many responses. It also remains unqualified, having picked it out of a larger context. Ironically, I think that most within the EC are coming alive because of faithful exploration of Scripture, not in abandoning or ignoring it.


Rob said...

For me, I come down on the side of Marc in that exchange. But it is clear from the range of responses I'm in the minority. (From having many discussions over the years I'm absolutely in the minority). The reason I like the EC is because I can ask questions without getting tossed out.

Darryl and Jamie are in the majority.

I also take exception to you saying that I'm ignoring the Bible. I don't think that's fair or accurate. You're not going to get me to agree with Sola Scriptura, but I will agree with Prima Scriptura and I still love Wesley's Quadilateral.

I just think there's more then one way to look at things. But again, the reason I enjoy the emergent conversation is the freedom to question. The inability to ask those questions is the reason I left conservative Christianity and Calvinism.


ScottB said...

Paul - I have to be frank. I'm wanting to comment on these last few posts, but I'm curious to know whether you intend to respond to the comments. I think folks have raised some significant questions for your own critique that you have yet to respond to - and I'm not sure I want to continue to engage here if you're not going to join the conversation. I don't mean to be critical and I know that it's often difficult to keep up with discussion threads, but you've continued to post content rather than engage your own critics here. That indicates to me that you're not interested in coming to mutual understanding but rather in presenting data points as you see them. Forgive me if I've mischaracterized you, but these are the conclusions I'm reaching after seeing your disengagement from the comments over the past several posts.

So - bottom line for me - is this a discussion for you with the purpose of influencing and allowing the possibility of being influenced, or are you only interested in presenting your already-firm conclusions? The first I can be a part of; the second isn't for me.

kerux said...

Hi Scott -
No, I am reading comments and pondering them as I am able. I was out of town most of last week and playing catch up this week. Much of what has been commented on lately though has already been addressed in other comment strings. Some of it I can see we are just on opposites of the fence on. Other parts I am thinking through before replying (A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back. - Proverb 29:11).
My plan is to keep posting in sections nearly daily so as to get the whole paper out there. I just may not be able to comment every day or on every comment.

ScottB said...

Fair enough - thanks for your response.

Bob said...

Paul- I wonder if you saw my answer to Carla's question?

I think many who answered negatively on that thread did so with the understanding that "Sola" means only. And clearly, the Bible is not the ONLY authority for any one of us.
It is however, the first, primary, ultimate, final, etc...

Your description of your church is beautiful. It just so happens that nearly every descriptive sentence you wrote could apply to my church, "emerging" though it may be. Nearly every sentence INCLUDING "what we do and how we do it is determined by the Word of God, the Bible"
And since that is so... where does that leave your critique of "the Emerging Church"?

Again, I'm going to suggest that writing and publically publishing a paper on the emerging church movement without looking at, speaking to or in any other way examing actual emerging churches might be a bit... well, I'll leave you to fill in your own descriptive statement there. But it ain't good. :)

NathanColquhoun said...

This might be of interest to you all.
Its a letter by Leron Shultz exclaiming why Emergent should not have a doctrinal statement, it was just released yesturday.

(you gotta paste the two lines together)

Carla said...

Paul (and others),

I would like to explain why I asked that question at ENo in the first place.

From the very first article I ever read about the "emerging" church, I was struck with the impression that Sola Scriptura wasn't something that was held to by the people in favor of this movement.

Over the last 2 years, the overwhelming impression has been the same. This is not to say that every single individual in the ECM denies it, but it is to say that for me (and for many others) that this is the general impression.

I tried to make that question as clear as possible. I did not ask if the Bible is an authority but if the Bible is the final authority. I believe there to be a most critical distinction there.

Some answered yes, others answered no. Some didn't give a straight answer at all, and others ignored the question entirely as they appeared to be more interested in entertaining thoughts along the lines of "this is a trick question".

It's no trick, it's a simple question designed to give readers a better idea of where folks in the ECM actually do stand.

Results of that post/comment thread are not intended to be representative of the ECM as a whole, but I do think it gives us a pretty good idea of the diverse positions within the movement/conversation.


Rob said...

"Over the last 2 years, the overwhelming impression has been the same. This is not to say that every single individual in the ECM denies it, but it is to say that for me (and for many others) that this is the general impression"

Carla, this isn't the right impression. Some, like Brian, aren't going to use words like Sola Scriptura or inerrancy, but they're in the minority. (I happen to agree with Brian, but that doesn't mean I represent even a small constituency of the EC).

The reason your site draws fire from people like me is because we're on the exact opposite of the spectrum. Frankly, I don't think your views represent the majority in tradtional conservative churches either. Again spectrums. I would suggest more research on less polarizing figures. Don Miller, Dan Kimball, etc.


kerux said...

Darryl -
You wrote: "My experience is that the ec is highly driven by a desire to be faithful to Scripture in both belief and practice." But you also wrote on your blog: "The emerging church is broad, and one could argue that it defines itself by the center (Jesus) rather than the boundaries (doctrinal distinctives). I generally like this approach, but I wonder if it's worth drawing a few more boundaries while still holding to the center..."
I am suggesting that without Sola Scriptura, EC is incapable of defining itself or what Truth is. I think that is what your second statement was getting at. Besides, to say that EC is "faithful to Scripture" is too broad, I think. Lots of folks claim a fidelity to Scripture, but that statement itself needs defining and boundaries.
Is it faithful to Scripture to adopt mystical prayer techniques, for example? Some would answer yes and others no - and both claim fidelity to the Word. So the real issue remains what that means. I think I have showed to some degree what the Revisionist Emergents mean by it... and it sure doesn't look to me to be the same thing as what the Bible testifies concerning itself.

kerux said...

rob -
Wesley's "quadrilateral" of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience is interesting.
Of course, the real question is, what do you do when Scripture, for instance, is in opposition to tradition? How do you know which is right, which one to live by, which one to venture your life on?
I have only studied a little of history, but what I know of Wesley indicates he was a man who found final authority in the Word. So, I need to study this quardrilateral more - I am curious if it is more "Wesleyan" than Wesley!

kerux said...

Bob -
Thanks for your post. I am glad your church is like mine... it must be great! :-)
As for the idea that I cannot know emerging churches without going to them... to be honest, this critique is getting a little tiresome. I suppose I could say the same thing back at you: "You don't understand me because you have never been in my home or sat in my congregation." Of course, that is silly, as you yourself just proved in your comment wherein you could identify similarities between our churches.
We can know lots about each other through written works.
And to suggest that I am wrong to publish this paper on the web is again misleading. The whole purpose of publishing it is to invite the converstation that emergent folks always ask for.

kerux said...

Carla -T
hanks for the clarifications.

kerux said...

Sorry - "Thanks"

ScottB said...

Paul - I think the main concern that many folks have with Sola Scriptura is that the very name suggests that no other authority is heeded. Now, I know that this isn't what the doctrine historically means or describes - Carla describes it well when she says the "final" authority. But I have to ask the question - what is the difference, then, between Sola and Prima Scriptura? If Sola Scriptura means, at its core, that all other authorities are ultimately under the authority of Scripture, we aren't thereby denying those authorities. We're merely placing them in proper relationship to each other.

Here's a case in point. Reformed theology is bounded by a set of confessions - Westminster being one of those, Heidelberg being another. Everyone I know who identifies themselves as Reformed holds to a particular confession along those lines. It would be foolish, then, to describe Reformed theology as having no authority besides Scripture (as "Sola" implies). The catechisms set the bounds for proper interpretation of Scripture, according to those traditions.

But here's the sticky wicket in that framework. Scripture holds authority over the catechism - this is true. But the catechism defines the way in which Scripture is interpreted. So it's not as simple as just saying that Scripture is the authority. To the degree that the catechism defines the relationship between a person and Scripture, it also holds authority. So how is it fair to describe this relationship as "Sola"? At best, it's a very poor description for something that is relatively more complex.

That complicates your question about Scripture critiquing tradition as well. Sometimes tradition critiques an interpretation of Scripture - so where's the line of authority then? If any act of reading Scripture is an act of interpretation, then it's fair to say that tradition defines the relationship between the interpreter and Scripture insofar as it defines the bounds for interpretation. So there's a mutually corrective relationship there - it's not as simple as just saying, "The Bible tells me so."

What I think you see happening when you see folks in the emerging church questioning Sola Scriptura isn't a denial of Scripture as the ultimate authority. It's an attempt to be intellectually honest and recognize that our interpretation is shaped by other factors - that's the reason that you'll hear folks discussing the Wesleyan quadrilateral, for example - great suggestion there by Rob. But that doesn't at all mean that folks are abandoning an authoritative text - may it never be! It's simply a recognition that other authorities are also at work, and that any reading of scripture is by its very nature an act of interpretation.

Rob said...


I keep saying this so it may sound like a broken record. The reason I like the concept of the EC so much is because it gives me the ability to ask questions and to question tradition, doctrine, reason and experience. Not to question so we never get anywhere, but to question so that we get closer to truth.

What worries me is the inability to ask questions in most conservative churches. If, for example, I ask "How can a loving God send people to Hell," people automatically assume I don't believe in Hell. This has been my experience over and over again. It's led me to wonder if most in conservative churches aren't sure if what they're believing is true. Surely the God of the universe can take me asking questions? If the God of the universe can take it, then why can't His followers?

To answer your question on the Quadrilateral, Wesley did believe in the Final Authority of Scripture from what I've read. Although it's given me a great gift. The ability to say, "I don't know."

Frankly, when reason and scripture contradict each other my liberal friends toss scripture and my conservative friends toss reason. I think both those scenario's are undesirable. I'm okay with some things being a mystery, and not having all the answers today. The inability to ask these questions in conservative churches leads me to believe most conservatives aren't okay with this mystery. And anything mysterious or unanswerable shakes their faith. Again, the reason I like Wesley's Quadrilateral so much, it leaves room for the mystery.

Lastly, in terms of Bob's comment. What you must understand about the EC is we know way more about you then you do about us. Many of us grew up in conservative evangelical churches and hyper reformed churches. We know your arguments, we understand how you interpret scripture, we understand your liturgy and worship styles. We know who you are. The same can't be said in return, which is why our crticims of conservative evangelicals tend to be much more sophisticated then the reverse. Why did so many of us love a 'New Kind of Christian?' Because Mclaren created characters that we could all relate to. We had all of those spectrums in our churches. He also gave a voice to what so many of us had been talking privately about (because taling about it publically would have gotten us thrown out)and feeling for so many years. So when people say 'you have to come to our churches to understand us,' they're right. If you want to create as sophisticated a criticism as we've created about you. (Not you personally but conservative evangelical churches in general).

I think you've created a good criticism here but it's still pretty unsophisticated (ie knowing that Brian doesn't speak for all of us etc).


Anonymous said...

I'm trying to figure this out: Do you guys hate eachother or would you lay down your lives for eachother?

bob said...

Paul- C'mon, brother... When I say you need to actually take a look at emerging churches to understand the emerging church movement and you answer that I've never visited YOUR church... you make me want to snort my coffee out of my nose.

I'm not writing a paper or publishing a website to deconstruct everything you think and do. But if I do, I PROMISE to visit your church :)

Conversation is good, dialogue is good... but so is research, eh?

Rob said...


What a sad comment. Brothers can disagree and still love each other.


Anonymous said...

Meh, I wouldn't call it a sad comment. It was more of a comment just to remind us that we are to love eachother beyond the point of laying down our lives for one another; that's all. Sometime extensive debate can cause hard feelings.

Anonymous said...

I meant to say "to the point of laying down our lives for one another"

Trish said...

Anonymous, why can't two brothers make arguments and disagree in love?

kerux said...

You wrote: "What you must understand about the EC is we know way more about you then you do about us. Many of us grew up in conservative evangelical churches and hyper reformed churches. We know your arguments, we understand how you interpret scripture, we understand your liturgy and worship styles. We know who you are. The same can't be said in return, which is why our crticims of conservative evangelicals tend to be much more sophisticated then the reverse."
I have to be honest that when I read this it seems incredibly arrogant to me. Am I missing something? I wish we could speak in person rather than via the web, thus I have really debated about whether to post this comment. But to say that I can know you and you can't know me, that I am more sophisiticated in my evaluation than you are... well, it just sounds rather presumptuous and rude to me.
I am willing to be corrected if I am making more of this than I should.
But it sounds to me like a cancer patient informing his doctor that he has no idea what it feels like to the be the patient since he has not had the same cancer. At one level (the physical) that may be true, but to suggest that the doctor has no ability whatsoever to understand the patient from all his study, observation, conversations, diagnoses, etc is rather exaggerated.
I could easily volley the same charge back at you. You have never been to my church for all I know and you have never met me. The fact is, you probably have a myriad of false pre-suppositions about who I am and what I do. But the purpose of this paper is to help identify those false pre-suppositions and urge one another along the path of Truth.
I can't see any value in further dialogue if I am simply going to be written off as a perhaps well-intentioned ignoramus.

kerux said...


I strongly suggest you avoid all coffee-snorting... burns the nose.

I guess we just disagree on what is viable research. I don't think I have anything else to say on that matter that I have not already written.

Robbymac said...

(A) Carla didn't get many responses because many of us are tired of having our words twisted and being misrepresented. I'd like to believe that she was asking an honest question, but her track record makes it difficult to trust her.

(B) Speaking personally, if I were to use Wesley's quadrilateral (which I'll need to read up on now that I'm referring to it), if tradition and Scripture appear to be in conflict -- Scripture wins, every time. Same goes for anything else.

(C) "Sola scriptura" for a number of people means that cessationism, dispensationalsim etc. are "biblical truths". I can easily affirm that the Bible is the final authority for me, but I will never buy into the false teaching of cessationism. See how it gets difficult? There are "Charismatic Calvinists" that I know personally, while Carla et al. insist that there's no such thing. Yet the charismatic calvinists also affirm sola scriptura.

So, ultimately, I seriously doubt that even Carla is "sola scriptura"; she interprets Scripture through a calvinist, cessationist, enlightenment grid. And that's why it's difficult to answer her "sola scriptura" question: it's not just about Scripture, but also about the theological grid that she's interpreting Scripture through.