Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Theological Positions Of Postmodernism Lack Examination

Recent History Of Religious Strife In America
In the early half of the 1900s, the church in America had a number of denominations. The ideas of liberal Christianity were in many if not most mainline denominations. Labels to describe those inside and outside the movement developed. The more liberal camp(s) were called modernist, liberal or later neo-orthodox. Those in the more conservative camps are divided into the fundamentalists or evangelicals. At the risk of oversimplification, this posting will NOT attempt to distinguish too much between all the variants but generalize into two segments; liberal and conservative. By conservative I do not mean political conservatives, but those who would attempt to retain the basics of the faith. In the early part of the 20th century the liberal type of Christianity did not attempt to establish new denominations or congregations, but mostly grew within the mainline denominations. The ensuing debate between liberal Christianity with more conservative Christianity was over the basics of the faith and it was the conservatives who instigated the debate by and large. Those who were a part of liberal Christianity were careful to not express their ideas directly to the wrong crowd so as to keep their employment and were content to patiently teach their doctrines from within the church. It is not that they did not teach their doctrines, it is that they kept their cards close to their chest so as to be able to play the best hand. Bold moves were made when the risk was low, more moderate positions were expressed when risk was higher. The conservatives were the ones framing the debate and attempting to bring out the issues, often in strident tones that disenfranchised people with a disposition that embraced politeness and civility. The debate was about the basics of the faith; the authority of scripture, the deity of Christ, the existence of hell, and the origins of the human race. The result was that the conservatives by and large left the existing institutions to the liberal competitors and formed their own conservative denominations, conservative seminaries, conservative mission agencies and conservative congregations. While these debates developed over a number of years, conservatives eventually felt forced to draw attention to the issues and act. Few today are debating whether liberal Christianity is right or wrong, for the most part; liberals are kept in their corner and conservatives in theirs. However, in conservative denominations there developed an examination at the beginning of a pastor's ministry to ensure the candidate for ministry adhered to the basics of the faith. Apparently, prior to the liberal versus conservative debate the examination for the ministry focused on an internal sense of call. Both liberal and conservative leaning candidates for ministry could express a sense of call.
In a separate story line, small groups of Christians arose who had no denominational affiliation. These groups were sometimes evangelical and at other times fundamentalists, but they wanted to follow God. Strong leaders who had no accountability to an outside denomination usually led these groups. The idea was to not get sucked into a denomination. In the seventies, any small splinter groups that were controlling or had doctrinal error were labeled a cult. Apologists who specialized in examining a splinter group's teaching and exposing their draconian practices arose to counter the many small sects. By and large the method of countering their teaching was to focus on the basics of the faith like the deity of Christ and the Trinity. (This also was used against larger sects like the Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses who did not stick to the basics of the faith.) In essence there was an unofficial list of those who were a part of some other broad umbrella label and those who were not. There are/were a number of broad umbrella labels used; the evangelical church, orthodox Christianity, or historic Christianity.
Recent Nullification Of The Means of Accountability
The Emerging Church is an outgrowth of a wide variety of churches. If the ministry is the result of splintering, it is often an issue of style or an issue regarding power. But the most of the time, splinter would be an overstatement. A quiet leaving for a different venue is the most common description of the event . Many in the Emerging Church, like the web site Vintage Faith (www.vintagefaith.com) affirm the traditional theology while expressing it through new media, thus the name “Vintage Faith”. They seem to be an intentional church plant with the blessing of their sending church. Again, we are taking into account the wide spectrum of ministries under the heading of Emerging Church. The web site The Ooze (www.theooze.com), established by Spencer Burke, purports to “affirm traditional teachers and new artists”. Spencer seems to be of the quiet leaving type. Others are quite quick to affirm the Apostle's Creed.
In contrast with the previous debate over the basics of the faith in liberal versus conservative brands of Christianity, those in the Emerging Church want to affirm the basics so they can move on and address issues of life. To discuss doctrine is to be too up tight; to share your own story is to be authentic. The Emerging Church as a whole avoids the trap of not affirming the basics of the faith. After a cursory affirmation, they move on to the more important issues of life. To say that the movement has no doctrinal position is exactly what they would like to say, however, doctrine simply means teaching and they do have teachings. Attempting to pin down a unified position of the movement is exactly what they want to avoid. Their attempt seems to be to transcend doctrinal issues with authentic life. While the liberals of the past avoided stating their true beliefs if the environment was not welcoming, the Emerging Church seems to quickly agree with their would be opponents on issues of the authority of the Bible, the deity of Christ, etc.. and move quickly to new, more important issues like a persons struggles with doubt. The mechanisms conservatives developed to counter the liberal infiltration are ineffective in holding individuals from the Emerging Church accountable. By and large it is not an infiltration of existing structures. In fact, the technique of building a separate institutional infrastructure used by the conservative Christian community is also the means for the rise of the Emerging Church. The new congregations, or should I say communities, which are being developed are affirming the basics of the faith, thus avoiding being put on the unofficial list. They are also avoiding accountability and debate. Note: I'm NOT calling the Emerging Church a cult, however it is clear that the plain examination which holds a group accountable to the larger body of Christ is missing. In order to address the issues pertaining to the Emerging Church, one must examine issues that they raise. Just because someone affirms The Apostle's Creed does not mean that his or her other teachings are okay. Throughout the ages of the church, creeds were developed to respond to movements, individuals and teachings. So creeds addressed different issues in different periods of history. While it is good we can agree that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, it is also important to discern what is meant by that statement. On an Evangelism Explosion visit my wife met a couple that had visited our church. The wife was a believer who had just given birth to twins. The husband was an officer in the Coast Guard. The husband expressed and interest in becoming a Christian. When the team started to clarify the commitment, the wife started to clarify for the team what her husband meant. He believed religion was merely a social institution that aided society in passing down morals. He did not want to actually accept Christ; he wanted to become a Christian so that his wife did not have an “unbelieving spouse”. In other words, he wanted to be nice to his wife and become a Christian for her sake, though he thought the whole issue of accepting Christ was a non-issue. If assent to a belief becomes something other than what everyone understands it to be, clarification must be made. Assent to The Apostle's Creed, or any other Creed, if it is the test of accountability to a larger Christian community, must not be usurped by a different understanding of the nature of truth. The issues of style and form that are by and large the identity markers of the movement, those are matters of preference. Often style is merely a matter of artistic form, but where it is transformed to become an actual part of the theology, it must be examined on its merits as theology.
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