Emerging Liberalism

Hengar ArticleNot a few critics of the emerging church have charged that the emerging movement often looks like made-over liberalism. While the charge is probably overly simplistic, there is nevertheless something that rings true about it.

A recent essay by Walter Hengar in byFaith magazine explores the emerging movement’s outreach to old liberal protestantism. The essay is titled “More than a Fad: Understanding the Emerging Church.” In it Hengar writes:

Emergent leaders who are eager to reconcile with liberal Protestants may soon find they have too much in common (source).

If the Emergent Village podcasts are a reliable indicator, I would have to say that I think Hengar may be correct. In these podcasts, there is a multi-part series of interviews with Yale theologian Miroslav Volf. These interviews indicate that the impulse within the Emergent Village appears to be one of consistent protest of conservative evangelicalism and of rapproachment and identification with liberal Christianity.

If you think I am overstating the case, I would like to hear from you. But please, listen to the Emergent Village podcasts first. In the podcasts when Volf suggests that some people may be saved apart from faith in Christ, Tony Jones and company respond as if this were an open question.

When that response is held next to Jones’s gushing affection for the rest of Volf’s work, it just seems to me that Hengar might be on to something. These emergent guys may have too much in common with the liberals.


6 thoughts on “Emerging Liberalism”

  1. Denny,

    The key thing to figure out is if there are genuine continuities as well as discontinuties. On the continuity front I’m interested in the default setting of Emergent to post-modern thinking and whether that in fact mirrors the liberal approach to modernism (which was to sit at its feet). Then of course there is the handling of inerrancy (am I fair to say the rejection of it?) and its consignment, wrongly, to the effects of the Enlightenment on evangelicalism. Modernist and postmodern autonomy ought to sit at willing bonds beneath the feet of Jesus. Liberalism sold out because it was the alien intrusion of a non-Christian worldview that in the end redefined Christian belief. Isn’t this always what heresy really is and how it succeeds?

    With regard to confessionalism I am staggered by the lack of commitment to being confessional (see the Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank for discussion on this). Dean Inge once wrote that “institutions tend to produce their opposite”. Evangelicalism spawning the new liberalism fits with that analysis.

    As a tribute to Elvis we need “a little less conversation and little more doctrine”.

  2. Martin,

    Thanks for the comment. An important point that D. A. Carson makes in Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church is picked up by Hengar in his article. Hengar wries:

    “Reformed theology has rich resources to offer the Emerging Church. The problem with modernism is not logic, language, or linear reasoning, but independent human reason as the final arbiter of truth. Reformed theology insists that God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture is the proper starting point of all true knowing. Though we never know perfectly, as God does, the Spirit working through the Word can sanctify our minds to know God’s world reliably. With this reliable knowledge we can apply vigorous, systematic reasoning to expose the underlying coherence of God’s world.”


  3. Denny,

    I wrote an article on the emerging church for an evangelical magazine in the UK and made a similar point. By lumping the Reformation with modernism (in its infancy) the emerging church cuts off both the best available resource and its best available corrective. They need to be more eclectic when it comes to church history.

  4. At the NPC, Tony Jones opened with giving a brief summary of the Emerging Church and the Emergent Village. He explained why he thinks that “emerging” has stuck. The church should always be changing, moving forward to know God, to live like Him, and to make Him known. Thus the church is never to say it has made it. It can never arrive, only emerge from whence it came closer to what God would have it to be. Now, that was a couple of months ago… and I’m sure I added my twist. But that gave me a good look at their core value: friendship. We need each other to find who God is, what I should be doing, and how best to make Him known. I’ve got a few links to a PDF file from John Franke on my blog. I like his reformed thinking: we should always be reforming (sounds like emerging). For we are fallen and finite thus we need to always question our knowledge of the One who is neither fallen nor finite. I tend to think the “emerging movement” is still too early to “kick out” and call liberal. I believe we are still forming it and they are welcoming ALL in to do so. As far as I can tell. I think its great to be challenged and not just hear a bunch of guys saying the same things in only slightly different ways about our magnificent Lord, Savior, and Friend. Why not embrace them where they are as they talk to people I may totally disagree with but would normally never come across. Therefore how can I “win some”, if I never get close enough to hear their voice and validate (not necessarily their positions) them for being a person God loves?

  5. Nace,

    What you have written is commendable. Our theology is the theology of pilgrims on the way. As I understand it this “conversation/friendship” isn’t just a positive forward movement but is also a critique of conservative evangelicalism. Now I am prepared to admit that such a critique at points is necessary. But some of the voices in the emerging conversation are changing things that should not be changed, and they are offering a critique that isn’t convincing.

    The conversation isn’t value neutral, nor should it be assessed by the positive vibes coming from those involved. It is a loving thing to have the courage to speak about perceived theological aberrations. It can be done from all sorts of motives, some of them bad. But surely some of those motives will come from a concern for the truth and a concern over the influence of Emergent if it is going in the wrong direction.

  6. before I start…I stumbled onto this site from the Baptist Press News mailing list, which I read every day and, well, as a liberal (politically speaking) Christian, am offended by most days.

    Anyway, I hope I am not intruding on the conversation here, but I felt the need to expound on something in the comments section. Here goes…

    Martin Downes wrote: “What you have written is commendable. Our theology is the theology of pilgrims on the way. As I understand it this “conversation/friendship” isn’t just a positive forward movement but is also a critique of conservative evangelicalism.”

    There need to be MORE critiques of conservative evangelicalism as we know it, too. The conservative evangelicals have one thing kind of right, and that is sticking to The Bible through thick and thin.

    The problem is, they stick to what they want to stick to, and they let their politics, their economics and their social stature dictate what they should stick to. My soon to be wife’s parents are fundamentalist evangelicals, and to see them do their missions work, I often shake my head in disbelief. Their sole purpose in life is to tell people that they are Christians. And so they don’t smoke, they don’t drink and they don’t swear, and they ram it right down everyone else’s throats. And they are not the first I have seen of this. Simply the closest.

    What I’ve seen of the emerging church is that they remember that the Christians at Antioch were called Christians before they adopted the name for themselves. Others saw the work of Christ in them and added the title. So, when they think of The Great Commission, their first thought is not to tell people about God and move on, it is to use Christianity as a verb and not as a noun. My experience has been that they go out into the community, they help with clean ups, programs, ESL programs, whatever they can do in the community to genuinely help the community outside of the church, to bring outsiders in and to show them what being a Christian is supposed to be all about. Something tells me that such a thing is what Christ had in mind when He told his disciples to spread the word. If someone was truly Christlike in their actions, and someone discounted that, then yes, you should kick the dust off of your feet and move on. But today, so much of “evangelizing” is pointing out the spiritual metaphors of U2 songs and sitting someone down with the Left Behind books and telling them that hellfire awaits.

    So, if the emergent church is critiquing the evangelicals who have forgotten how to evangelize, then good for them. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll do some good. That would be a great thing indeed.

    I apologize for taking up so much bandwidth…


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