Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Emergent Epistemology

To define a movement properly is to find not just what is unique to a movement, as adult baptism upon confession was to the Baptists or as the gift of prophecy was to the Vineyard, but to discover and elaborate what is “characteristic” of that movement. I think it is a mistake to define Emergent solely on the basis of its epistemology, especially when one focuses on only one of its leaders, and I think it is imperative to listen long and hard to what the Emergent folk are saying in order to grasp not only what is unique to them but what genuinely characterizes them. I happen to think there is an epistemology here, and I am persuaded that it will differ radically from person to person and from church to church, and because it will differ so wildly, it is not fair to limit it to McLaren.

But, again, there is an epistemology among the Emergents and I want to give it a label and ask for it to be considered as a way of putting together what this movement has as one of its central concerns. I will call it an “ecclesiological epistemology,” and I will try to give it some definition. (Maybe others have said this better; I cede to them if they have.)

Let me begin with this: for the Emergent movement one “knows” most fully and in the fullness that God desires in the context of community and one “comes to know” and “to make known” through that ecclesial community. What this means involves the following:

First, there is no necessary denial of truth among the Emergents in this ecclesiological epistemology. I have read Brian McLaren and some others; I have read the blogs of countless others; and I know that they are in deep communion with the likes of Stan Grenz, Leonard Sweet, and others. I know that sometimes, in fact more often than that, these lights say things that suggest that “truth” can’t be known. And DA Carson has pointed this out, and he needs to be listened to by the Emergents. To claim to be a Christian is to claim to know that God is Truth and that his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the Truth.

But, so far as I can see, the Emergents confess this. Where they sometimes get confused is in thinking that (1) we can’t know anything in our world absolutely; (2) truth is an absolute claim; therefore (3) we can’t claim Truth. But, I am a lot more persuaded that most Emergents don’t walk this syllogism. For those who do, they are fighting against either a straw man or a dead man: very few think in terms of needing to know anything absolutely anymore. The Cartesian doubt has seen its day.

Second, thus, there is a chastened sense of Truth among Emergents that has been seriously informed by the Fall as something that impacts the mind of all humans. Which simply means this: humans cannot articulate the Truth with utter finality, and that they cannot fully know that Truth, and that therefore they should avoid talking like they do. Most importantly, truth can only be known because of the grace of God. Someone like Merold Westphal is worth reading in this regard.

What the Emergents tend toward is the problem of the Subject and the Object: the Object may be there (God, the gospel, etc) but the Subject is involved in the knowing of that Object, and the minute the Subject gets involved the Object loses its pure objectivity. It is OK not to know absolutely, it is OK to recognize that our attempts at knowing are not complete, but it is not OK to slip into thinking that therefore humans can’t know the Object. We can, but we can’t know it purely. But, in the context of community, operating together into a hermeneutical spiral, the human can come to terms with the Object and know truthfully. What we know is always the articulation of a Subject, but the grace of God enables us to know and his grace is sufficient for us to know that we can know some things truthfully.

Third, sometimes their chastened concept of Truth goes too far. I need not emphasize this, but I don’t consider it a small issue.

Fourth, but they are saying something that needs to be heard: Truth is more than a rational system of thought. Truth is closer to Love than it is to Light (though one should be hesitant to make these opposites) and that therefore the fullest sense of truth is known in loving God and loving others, that it is known in union with God and in communion with others, and that this sense of Truth actually transcends our rational processes. Again, the perichoresis is the ground of God’s reality.

What I see among the Emergent lights is a clear disgust with the theology that is too rational, that does not result in human transformation, and that does not see the focus of life in the community of God. I happen to think that “story” is too often used, but only because it is so welcome. We must never forget this: when God chose to make his will known in verbal form, he chose two things: the story of Israel and the Church, and the living embodiment in his Son, Jesus Christ. Each of these can be turned into rational propositions, but turning them will never satisfy the fullness that is needed in knowing God and being known as we are known.

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posted May 3, 2005 at 12:28 pm

This problem of knowledge and truth and its relation to covenant (the old english word “troth”) is not new, and I’ve always been fascinated by its particular appearance around the time that Bernard was debating with Anselm. Anselm, a child of the Greek philosophers as much as a student of Scripture, stated his creed as “credo ut intelligam,” I believe in order to understand. Bernard, representing a counter movement, responded with “credo ut experiar,” I believe in order to experience. While knowledge was seen by the scholastics as primarily rational, it was seen by the monastics as founded in love. Since truth is ultimately personal, involving relationship and commitment (Kierkegaards take on subjectivity would be helpful here, as a friend of mine is always reminding me) I think the monastic path is helpful and a great corrective to our Greek and enlightenment heritage.

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posted May 3, 2005 at 1:48 pm

Thanks so much for that post. For the last year, I’ve started to realize some of this stuff, but I didn’t know how to articulate it. I don’t think that I realized the impact of the fall on our cognitive faculties. I’m a biased, subjective person, bented on sin. I cannot look at the evidence for Christianity or God objectively. This explains why when it comes to religion, incredibly intelligent people disagree on some much stuff. Knowledge is truly a grace from God. On a practical level, it’s really challenging to think that sin destroys my ability to know God. How we need his grace!

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Scot McKnight

posted May 3, 2005 at 2:05 pm

Daniel, thanks for these kind comments. But, I’m not so hep on the idea of “destroying”. I don’t think the Fall ruins us; destroys us. But, it sure impacts us and turns us around so that we run East of Eden, and we need Easter to get back going in the other direction. We have to preserve our Eikonic status.

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Aaron Flores

posted May 3, 2005 at 2:33 pm

Thanks Scott ~Very insightful. When you refer to “Emergents,” who classfies as one? Who are you basing your premise upon? Who are your actual subjects?I wonder because I do not believe the emerging church has arrived at a common/shared ecclisiology or epistemology. Does this blanket statement refer to a few and not necessarily the whole?Thanks again.

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posted May 3, 2005 at 3:26 pm

Scot, I’m not sure of what you meant by your comment. When I use the word “destroy,” I don’t mean that sin destroys our worth as human beings. I believe that we are still in the image of God. We just are valuable to God. What I meant is that the fall has corrupted every aspect of our personalities–our minds, our hearts, or souls. Because of this, left in our corrupt state, we could never know God. His grace is needed to restore us. I’m not a Calvinist by any means. However, I do believe that the Bible teaches that God has to make the first move in order to bring us into relationship with Himself. In our depravity, we would have never come to know God except for His gracious intervention. I guess that’s often referred to as prevenient grace. I guess that I want to study at the epistemological implications of a doctrine like total depravity. You should hurry up and finish your book.:)

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Scot McKnight

posted May 3, 2005 at 6:02 pm

Aaron,Long way back I went with the idea that Emergents is flexible, and that we need to know that up front. So, I have stuck with Doug Pagitt, who is a leader in the movement, and I blogged the Carson review of McLaren’s epistemology.Daniel,Thanks for this. I’m with you; I guess I think “destroy” is too strong of a term, but the notion that the mind is in need of grace is important to me, too.

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posted May 3, 2005 at 7:17 pm

I think there’s another strand in the mix that sometimes comes up, and that’s truth as will to power. I think there’s at times an undercurrent of suspicion about truth claims made too strongly because it often hides a motivation of control. I think this becomes more evident in the approach to politics you often see and the reaction to those who use faith claims and religious language in the context of political rhetoric. I don’t want to overplay this element, but I think it’s fair to say it’s present.

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Fernando Gros

posted May 4, 2005 at 12:05 am

another good post. maybe it goes beyond disgust at a rationalistic theology that does not transform and also includes disgust at a reductionistic is frustrating when theologians seek to bring any new movement in ecclesiology back to epistemology. it is also hard not to view this with a degree of cynicism as well, since it looks like theologians are premptively reshaping the countours of the issue to suit their already sharpened skillset. in my view this cyncism, maybe at an implicit rather than explicit level, is behind the tone of reactions against some recent critiques of emergent churches.

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posted May 4, 2005 at 3:19 am

Scot- Emergent’s most prominent voices have opted for the post-liberal coherentist view of knowledge (Lindbeck, Frei) in which one’s community essentially creates truth. In this approach we have no independent access to reality at all, and the interpretive community completely determines one’s conclusions. This differs from the modest foundationalism of Plantinga, or from the very nuanced non-foundationalism of Wolterstorff. N.T.Wright falls in there somewhere too, because his ‘Resurrection of the Son of God’ tries to convince people across all interpretive communities that the Resurrection really did happen as a historical fact. The dominant emergent voices would certainly accept that the resurrection is a fact, but they would never think you could convince anyone else like Wright tries to do with historical arguments. They would say you just have to ‘out-narrate’ other communities in order to do evangelism. As a working pastor I think it’s a mistake to buy into one of these–modest foundationalism, non-foundationalism, anti-foundationalism–as if one of them is THE right way to justify beliefs and THE coming, dominant cultural way of knowing. Our society is filled with people who use all of these (including, on the one side, classical foundationalists and, on the other side, crass pragmatists.) As a preacher and evangelist, we’ve got to assume a diversity among our listeners. I think we do have to argue like Wright (for the more rational) and out-narrate (for the more experiential.) We’ve got to do it all. I’m afraid doctrinaire ‘ecclsiologial epistemology’ and anti-systematics is as rigid as the older rationalism. In this sense Emergent really is an over-reaction. I’m afraid it will only reach people of a certain temperment (educated, artistic.) What do you think? Tim Keller

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Scot McKnight

posted May 4, 2005 at 4:56 am

Tim,I think you are seeing into things pretty well. But, the first issue is that lumping all Emergents together causes confusion. The reason DA Carson chose McLaren is because he has a clear voice on these issues, and actually does come from these strains. I hadn’t seen that much of Lindbeck and Frei in the stuff I’ve looked at, but I can believe it. (Frei misunderstood pre-Reformation and esp NT senses of history, and Lindbeck does place the weight of authority on the community.)I agree with you that not all are postmodernists who want to be “out-narrated.” I’ve often commented that Willow Creek, which is seen by some as a modernist church, still attracts 20.000 per week, and one of their favorite speakers is Lee Strobel who is as modernist as one can be.My issue with your comment is one to consider for both of us: Tom Wright is the most popular NT scholar for most of the Emergent folk. Now, I can’t do a poll on such things, and surely there are many who haven’t heard of him, but if you see who they cite, Wright is right there. And this means that their epistemology is more along the line of critical realism when they accept him.I had a long blog about foundationalism and decided to jettison it: agreeing on labels is hard business.I think reducing things to epistemology is a form of foundationalism, while others say “no.” So, I say, avoid those labels until there is some clarity.But, to think the Emergents believe the community “creates” the truth is too strong as I hear them speaking and read what they write. Doug Pagitt, for instance, sees the community joining into the story of God in the Bible and continuing that story. It looks to me that the “story” has already been told at some level, and not just created by the community.I agree, again, that we can’t think our audiences are all alike. I’ve preached all over this blessed country, and I couldn’t agree with you more. But, this tends once again to reduce things to epistemology, and I find that many Emergents are there for an entirely different reason.

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posted May 4, 2005 at 5:33 am

Scot-Thanks. I think you are right that there is an enormous lack of clarity at this point. McLaren, Pagitt, Jones make very strong statements against ‘foundationalism’ which they define very broadly. I noticed Tony Jones called Plantinga and even Wolterstorff ‘crypto-foundationalists’ on your blog. If their epistemology is to be rejected as too conservative (as too confident we can have individual, independent access to reality) then it must mean they are adopting the community-is-ultimate-authority-approach. Yet their habits of ministry practice are still rather conservative evangelical. It is hard to know where they are going to ‘come down.’ And some early Emergent-leaders are deliberately distancing themselves from others now. That’s why you are right to warn against over-categorization. I appreciate your cool-headedness. Tim Keller

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posted May 4, 2005 at 11:57 am

btw, a book that is becoming essential reading in the discussion of emergent epistemology.. if not ecclesiology.. is “Colossians Remixed” I’m going to post some excerpts from their discussion of truth in the next few days…

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bill bean

posted May 4, 2005 at 7:17 pm

It has been said numerous times but I’ll echo the thought again, the emerging church is extremely diverse. To say that the category boundaries are fuzzy is an understatement. Some of us, if I can say “us”, are 90% evangelical, some are 10% evangelical, some are mostly Catholic, some Charismatic. We can’t even be sure as to how much the bloggers actually represent, though it is likely to be significant. Is this phenemenon a renewal movement or more of a reformation?Scott, your posts from last week identified some commonalities that seemed, to me, to be on target. I hope you keep developing those. If for no other reason than they help us with the discussion. And I agree with Tim, your cool-headedness is tremendously helpful. If you were in Indy I’d take your classes.Tim, to reinforce the ecclectic nature of e/c I’d like to say how much i have benefitted from your sermons. I’m an e/c type that reads both mclaren and the journal of biblical counseling.

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