Emergent church "leading theologian" declares: statement of faith would be "disastrous"<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
By Jason Carlson
On Thursday May 4th, the National Coordinator for Emergent-U.S., Tony Jones, sent out an e-mail alert to all followers of Emergent defending Emergent's refusal to clearly define their doctrinal beliefs.[i] In this e-mail alert Jones states, "we have been inundated with requests for our statement of faith in Emergent, but some of us had an inclination that to formulate something would take us down a road that we don't want to trod." I will explain later why Emergent is so reluctant to travel the road of doctrinal definitions, but in the meantime, Jones goes on in his alert to state, "imagine our joy when a leading theologian joined our ranks and said that such a statement would be disastrous." Who is this "leading theologian" who has so bolstered Emergent with confidence over their doctrinal ambiguity? His name is LeRon Shults, recently resigned theology professor at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN who is taking a new teaching post in Norway, and he happens to be one of my former instructors at Bethel Seminary.
Following Jones' introduction, Emergent's e-mail alert continues with Shults' statement attempting to justify the Emergent leadership's wallowing in doctrinal ambiguity. (By the way, these regular e-mail alerts that Emergent sends out are titled "Emergent/C". I find this to be a fitting title for what follows in Shults' statement, as Emergent's love for ambiguity, uncertainty, and haziness inevitably leads to real and serious EMERGENCIES within the church.) Shults states, "I believe there are several reasons why Emergent should not have a 'statement of faith' Such a move would be unnecessary, inappropriate and disastrous." How does he justify these claims?
First of all, Shults declares that a statement of faith is unnecessary because "Jesus did not have a 'statement of faith'"; and then he goes on to state, "The writers of the New Testament were not obsessed with finding a final set of propositions the assent to which marks off true believers." Secondly, Shults says that a statement of faith is inappropriate because, "The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry." Thirdly, Shults declares that a statement of faith would be disastrous because "Emergent aims to facilitate a conversation among persons committed to living out faithfully the call to participate in the reconciling mission of the biblical God a 'statement of faith' tends to stop conversation. Such statements can also easily become tools for manipulating or excluding people from the community."
Let me say a few things in regards to the above points by Shults, points affirmed by the Emergent leadership, points which celebrate and seek to justify Emergent's theological and doctrinal elusiveness. First of all, Shults is simply wrong when he states that Jesus had no statement of faith. Jesus may have never written down in a formal document the core essentials of the Christian faith, but he did teach them and affirm them throughout his earthly ministry. Consider just one of Jesus' many teaching encounters, in John chapter 3 Jesus teaches the Pharisee named Nicodemus numerous crucial propositional truths central to genuine Christian faith, Jesus declares the following:
V. 3 There is a kingdom of God.
V. 5-7 To see the kingdom of God you must be spiritually born again.
V. 13 The Son of Man (Jesus) came from Heaven.
V. 15 Belief in Jesus leads to eternal life.
V. 16 God exists and He has a Son.
V. 16 God loves the world.
V. 16 Those who believe not in the Son will perish.
V. 19 Men love darkness and their deeds are evil.
V. 21 Men may be saved, but only through God.
This short list is just a tiny sampling of the vast amount of propositional teaching that Jesus revealed to us, truths central to the Christian faith, truths which if not assented to remove you from the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. Jesus himself affirmed the necessity of assenting to these core doctrines when he said to Nicodemus, a Jewish Pharisee, "I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony" (v. 11). In other words, because of their failure to accept Jesus' revelations, his statements of faith, Jesus did not include the Pharisees in the ranks of those who would receive eternal life. Make no mistake friends; Jesus had a statement of faith and our acceptance of it really matters!
Secondly, not only is Shults and Emergent wrong when they claim that Jesus had no statement of faith, but to claim that the writers of the New Testament were not concerned with teaching and protecting a core of propositional truths which marks off true believers from those unsaved is absolutely ridiculous. Consider just the following sampling of New Testament references to guarding the true faith to which we must assent:
2 Timothy 4:1-4 "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage- with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths."
Jude 3 "Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints."
Galatians 1:6-9 "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel- which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!"
1 Timothy 4:11-13, 15-16 "Command and teach these things. Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourselves to the public reading of scripture, to preaching and to teaching Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers."
I could go on and on citing such biblical admonitions for teaching and protecting the essential doctrines of the true Christian faith to which we must assent. For the leadership of Emergent and their "leading theologian" to miss or ignore these clear biblical declarations to the reality of a core set of Christian doctrines which marks off true believers is absolutely astounding. There is absolutely no way that anyone who takes scripture seriously can read these passages and claim that statements of faith are unnecessary.
Not only do Shults and Emergent wrongly claim that a statement of faith is unnecessary, but they also claim that a statement of faith would be inappropriate. Shults states, "The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry." The problem with this statement is that we have not imposed our finite human language upon the infinite God; rather the infinite God himself chose to reveal himself to humanity through the medium of finite human language, both verbal and written. In fact, the entire Bible, which was written by 40 different authors in 3 different languages, is not simply a phenomenon of finite human linguistics, but the Bible was fully inspired by the infinite God himself. 2 Timothy 3:16 declares that "All scripture is God-breathed." God chose to use the finite human medium of linguistics to reveal divinely inspired propositional truths to us. This fact alone dispels Shults' claim that our human attempts at defining our doctrinal beliefs is a form of linguistic idolatry, for it was the infinite God who first chose to use the medium of finite human linguistics to reveal himself to us. For human beings to take seriously God's revealed propositional truths to us, by defining them and systematizing them, is not idolatry, it is called faithfulness.
Finally, after declaring that a statement of faith is unnecessary and inappropriate, Shults concludes his defense of Emergent's lack of doctrinal clarity by claiming that a statement of faith would be disastrous. How would a statement of faith be disastrous? Well, they're not, unless you're an emergent church, of the Emergent persuasion. You see according to Shults, "Emergent aims to facilitate a conversation among persons committed to living out faithfully the call to participate in the reconciling mission of the biblical God a 'statement of faith' tends to stop conversation. Such statements can also easily become tools for manipulating or excluding people from the community." This last sentence is especially crucial for understanding Emergent's distaste for doctrinal clarity. You see postmodern inclusiveness and tolerance are pretty much the highest values within the non-systematized belief system of Emergent.
Now, I don't have any problem with inclusiveness or tolerance, especially in the true biblical spirit of these terms, but within Emergent there is such a premium placed on inclusiveness and tolerance, as defined by postmodern philosophy, that there is basically no sense of biblical discernment in terms of recognizing and labeling false beliefs, practices, or lifestyles. This is why for example in a recent debate here in the Twin Cities Emergent church leader Doug Pagitt, in reply to a question about whether or not Mormons were within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, simply could not, no matter how many opportunities he was given, state that Mormon's were not Christians as defined by Scripture. This is also the motivation behind Brian McLaren's recent call for the church to take a five-year moratorium on making any judgments against homosexuality.
You see, never mind what the Bible clearly states, what matters most is inclusiveness and tolerance; and so, within Emergent, whenever they come across a biblical teaching which is exclusive or judgmental, that teaching is either flatly ignored or redefined and neutered through their lenses of postmodern inclusiveness and tolerance. This is why a statement of faith would be "disastrous" in the view of Emergent's "leading theologian" LeRon Shults; statements of faith are naturally exclusive. The bigger problem with Emergent's position though is this, not only are statements of faith naturally exclusive, but what the leadership of Emergent doesn't seem to understand, or is unwilling to accept, is the fact that the truth is always exclusive and so is the gospel of Jesus Christ; and it is these facts which have always driven those who desire to remain faithful to God's revelation to declare and defend doctrinal positions that distinguish true believers from the unsaved.
The leadership of Emergent refuses to produce a statement of faith, calling the idea of doing so "disastrous". Emergent theologian LeRon Shults has provided them a flimsy justification for Emergent's ongoing theological and doctrinal ambiguity, but with his statement he will inevitably embolden the Emergent faithful in their ongoing march away from biblical absolutes, discernment, and exclusivity. With each successive step that Emergent takes away from affirming the historical absolutes of Christian orthodoxy, the more we can expect to continue to see Emergent's leadership flirting with and outright embracing non-biblical beliefs, practices, and lifestyles. This is already taking place within the Emergent conversation and Shults' statement will do nothing more but propel Emergent further into error.
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