Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Particular and Local

One of the most important elements of the Emergent movement, an element that DA Carson unfortunately didn’t address, is that many of these folks think the gospel has to be worked out at a local level and in a particular place. DA Carson’s book focuses on the epistemology of Brian McLaren but, in so doing, misses what I think is foundational (dare I use that word in another sense?) to the entire movement: its ecclesiology. These last few blogs have focused on ecclesiology, and I am looking at it through the lens of Doug Pagitt’s book, Reimagining Spiritual Formation, and therefore the life of Solomon’s Porch.

Here’s the issue as I see it: the gospel will come into a physical/spiritual expression in different ways in different places because the gospel cannot be equated with those expressions. I can’t emphasize the importance of this point: the gospel and the manifestations of the gospel are not one and the same. What will appear in one place (say a strong emphasis on artistic expression) may not appear at all in another place (where there may be more emphasis on social justice or on teaching or on any number of things).

The gospel is the same, and I’m not sure this is the place even to try to define the gospel, but the manifestation must be particular and local. For Solomon’s Porch the gospel is pretty close to participating in the story of God, as made known in Scripture and the world.

Within this conviction is another: transportable church models are potentially dangerous. If one believes in a seeker-model, one might be tempted to import Willow Creek type things to a community that neither has Willow Creek’s particular giftedness nor will the local community need such a ministry. In other words, copy cat ministry is Verboten among the Emergent folks.

Take Tony Jones or Andrew Jones or Doug Pagitt or Brian McLaren — take them and look at their communities and you will not see the same thing. Why? because they each are trying to let the gospel bloom in their local gardens.

Pagitt, for instance, has led Solomon’s Porch — and “led” is not as democratic a word as I need — into a very artsy expression; they compose their own songs; they “do” their own sermon-making; they reach into the missional needs of their own community; and we could go on and on.

Let us not forget this: what is particular and local involves the particular and local leaders who are in turn shaped by that particular and local. Community is not amorphous: it has particular shapings from its leaders.

But, there is something unusual about this Emergent sense of the particular: it is not about “preaching the gospel” in a local place and then seeing what happens and then calling that the “particular.” This implies that one already knows what the “gospel” is; the Emergent folk tend to be more radical than this, and they want to say that the “gospel” itself is particular and local and that one cannot put “gospel” and “local manifestation” into tidy and different boxes and analyze them separately. This is precisely what the Emergent movement is not saying. Since God is a person, the community becomes the place where the gospel is seen and experienced.

Two observations: it is unlikely that past church reflections are entirely looked over in this process for just as orthodoxy has its own defining moments that will stay with us forever, so also does ecclesiology have its own moments. And, I think there needs to be dialogue over time about “what works” and “why it works” among the Emergent folk so that things can be learned about gospel work among postmodernists. For all the emphasis on the local, there are some important similar threads between these local churches.

In addition to these, we need to recognize that the Emergent emphasis on the particular leads each of us to do more “local work” on what makes up our community, what needs it has, and how we can manifest the gospel in our own community. The manifestation of the gospel in the inner-city will have a different emphasis than those in the suburbs (and I don’t want to walk down that path just yet, but there are differences, and I’m keen on Christian Smith and Michael Emerson’s Divided By Faith). One of the themes of the Emergent movement is to quit worrying about what other churches are doing, especially big “successful” ones, and to start focusing on what can be done in our own back yards.

Next blog: holism.

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Fernando Gros

posted May 2, 2005 at 8:51 am

Another thoughtful and though provoking post.The local, to me, is the central issue to understanding emergent ecclesiology. It is also profound if one starts to consider glocalisation (the simultaneous movements towards localism and globalisation). Emergent groups and ministries are on the pulse of glocalisation, with their local emphasis, but also real-time tapping into the networks of globalisation.In the end, you can’t separate this from the divide between the urban and suburan, because it is the way the two participate differently in glocalisation that is perhaps the sharpest example of that which divides them.

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Robin Dugall

posted May 2, 2005 at 9:41 am

Dear Mr. Creed – I couldn’t agree with you more…the gospel must be incarnated in unique ways in the local setting…you have made a point that is completely foreign to many on the journey of seeking God-honoring ministry paradigms in a modernistic mentality. Many try to repeat methodologies, passions and visions that were given to specific locales and individuals and communities. I think that is not only unfaithful but flawed from a Kingdom perspective. I’m going to keep reading your insights…thanks for them…Robin DugallProfessor Biblical Studies – Azusa Pacific UExec. Director, Youth Leadership Institute

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bill bean

posted May 2, 2005 at 9:42 am

Keep it up Scot. This is helpful work you are doing.

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posted May 2, 2005 at 9:56 am

I think what you say is good- definitely on to something, but I think you (or the emergent church) are probably going to end up with a synthesis toward the middle to hit the truth on this one.Mainly because God is both personal and unchanging in that Person.

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Scot McKnight

posted May 2, 2005 at 10:14 am

Yes, involved in the idea of the particular is the global. Good point to make.This is why Emergent can’t be limited to epistemology.

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posted May 2, 2005 at 1:11 pm

Again, a great post! I recently heard a wonderful analogy paralleling the invasion of Normandy to ministry as it pertains to the emerging culture (read on–it’s not as bad as it sounds, lol). Upon arrival of the Allied Forces, a problem arose. The cookie cutter battle plan proved ineffective due to the lack of consideration of the French terrain during planning. The soldiers then had to abort the plan, call up and down the lines to see what was working, and then decide if what was working “over there” could be modified to work in their situation–if yes, go for it; if no, find something that will–and share that. The manifestation of the Gospel to the emerging culture DOES place value and importance on the local. But like the Allied Forces, it is not devoid of global awareness and the commonality of the goal…just different manifestations based on different needs.

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posted May 2, 2005 at 6:48 pm

Scot, I think you have displayed what I consider to be the chief error in the modern/pomo church/seminary—the breakdown between theology and practical theology. What you’ve stated clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding on how the gospel itself creates structures and expressions on its own. Why? Because it stems from a culture as well. It stems from God’s culture. For instance, you mentioned how the gospel may take expression more in artistic forms, etc. But how much of that are simply foreign expressions stemming from foreign cultures directing how the gospel is expressed (and therefore, what the gospel is as well). Those who emphasize social justice is because the gospel is seen through the lens of the social gospel/liberalism etc.), but it is no longer the Gospel, but a gospel which has been defined and expressed by the culture, not by God.How does a world, that the Scripture states is lost in its depravity and seeks to define and express God in images, not violate the very speaking/hearing of the spoken word which enters in to express God uniquely as Spirit, and not visible image?All this to say that I think the evangelical/pomo church world has fallen into chaos because theology is understood as empty theories to believe, and not ideas the pervade every aspect of life, including communal/cultural expression. This is why I think you also don’t understand why epistemology does limit the boundaries of ec (as it does with all things), and why it was important for Carson to discuss this aspect, which is central, rather than something which simply stems from it, like ecclesiology.

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Scot McKnight

posted May 2, 2005 at 7:12 pm

Well, Anonymous, quite a comment. I do like your comment that the gospel will violate a culture that is not surrendered to it, but wouldn’t you say that there is no such thing as a “culture-less” expression of the gospel?A Hebrew expression will emerge from a Hebrew/Israelite/Jewish world; just so with Greek and any other cultural embodiment. I believe God transcends culture, and the gospel in that sense does as well, but what the pomo people want us to tackle is whether or not we ever can grasp the gospel in anything other than a culture-limiting way. I don’t know that our finite minds (call them depraved) can ever avoid this sort of limitation. (Which, in my mind, makes us dependent on grace, admitting the transcendence of God, and our own need of constant correction before God’s pure truth.)And, o brother, I do admit to the centrality of the epistemic task: I just don’t think the Emergent movement can be reduced to Brian McLaren’s epistemology. Far too many disagree with McLaren to let him take all the heat for this new movement in the Church. And I happen to think the Emergent epistemology is more along the line of the linguistic turn.There is no such thing, however, as a pure distinction between practical theology and theology. God’s utter holiness is not just descriptive but a being-ness in God himself.

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Scot McKnight

posted May 2, 2005 at 7:14 pm

My last blog here will be on epistemology.

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posted May 2, 2005 at 8:10 pm

Thank you for clarifying, Scot. That helps a lot to know you are referring to McLaren’s epistemology. I do think, in Carson’s defense however, that most of the ec I have talked to (although I know they probably only represent about a fourth of it) hold to McLaren’s epistemology. So I do think Carson’s book will be useful for this section of ec.I do want to clarify as well that I was not saying the Gospel will ever be completely “purified” from culture, but that we should not legitimize cultural expressions simply because they exist (descriptive). Instead, the task of the Gospel is to counter the move of men (within their particular culture) to “express” the gospel in a way that is contrary to the way God has told us to express it. I’m sure you know, as I mentioned, one of the major themes in Scripture is to emphasize that God is not visible and therefore cannot be known through the visible, but through the spoken word (Sinai Theology). As Augustine concluded, since God is Spirit, He cannot be sensed physically, emotionally, etc., but that He can only be heard (if He chooses to speak and so Has through the Scripture). This would disable a lot of cultural expressions through “physical art,” etc. and instead enable the Gospel to be one of Unseen, Spoken Word.In other words, what I’m trying to say is that (if the NT teaching that the world and cultures are ruled by the demonic is true), we ought to see alternate forms of expression (one’s created by these cultures) as problems and obstacles to the culture of God’s gospel and not as truly legitimate expressions of the gospel itself.Would you not agree with this?

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Scot McKnight

posted May 2, 2005 at 8:31 pm

Anonymous,Thanks again. Good discussion, and helping me clarify my own thoughts.I agree that Carson’s book will further the epistemology discussion, but I do think he too often resorts to the “fact” of truth rather than to the “form” of truth that so concerns the Rortian postmodernists.I like the not legitimizing culture very much. Your point on God’s invisibility is well taken, but let us also balance that with the Incarnation, and back up to Tabernacle/Temple, to feasts, and to the smells and bells of the Temple, to Jerusalem as Zion, etc.. Only in this balance does the Word theology of Sinai/Ezra and Jesus’ Mount sermon and Paul’s epistolary program gain full meaning.Lord’s Supper; baptism. I’m not sure that we can say God cannot be known through the visible, though I think what you are saying does embrace the usefulness of the visible for God’s self-disclosure.I think I need to think a little more on this last point, but it does seem to me that you may have equated “gospel” with something that is fully knowable and transcendent of any human culture. At some level I agree: God’s Word spoken from God to us (some primal word — who this sounds like I don’t know), but I’m not sure our grasp of it can transcend culture except in the existential moment of personal relationship (which gets close at times to Kierkegaard or Buber or fellers like them). More thinking here for me.Do I know you?

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posted May 2, 2005 at 9:16 pm

Hi, Scot, I don’t know if I’ve met you or not. I used to go to Trinity and Libertyville Covenant Church. I taught a single Sunday School class on Calvinism, Arminianism and Compatiblist views of these. I also taught Hebrew at Trinity and was in Carson’s advisor group, so I may have met you at Trinity. I don’t know if you went to Liberty Covenant or not, but I figured you might since you teach now at North Park and live in Libertyville.I’ll have to think about how visuals like baptism and communion fit in, but I think we would agree that God Himself legitmizes these forms (feasts, baptism, communion), and they are culture transforming the expression of the gospel, but the gospel transforming the goal/aim/purpose/object of the expression–since the visual is in the culture already–baptism with Qumran, rabbis, John—communion with Biblical feasts which are themselves taken from the ANE cultus). The temple/tabernacle actually displays the fact that God has replaced the visual idol it usually contains with the spoken Law instead, so I probably would see this as a visual to teach that God cannot be known through visuals alone, but by the Word that gives them meaning and interprets them). But I would then ask the question why there is no idol along with the Scripture? To which I would reply, “Because the Word must be central and the visuals secondary.”The big thing would be then, along with Calvin and many of the Reformers, that the “legitimate” visuals are to be saturated with Scripture, not divorced from them. One of the big issues of course was the fact that the RC had divorced the two and had become much more mystical in its orientation when it came to the sacraments. Thus it had lost its purpose as platforms to display the spoken word. So I do think that the plight of the community of God is to guard itself from REPLACING the spoken teaching/word with the visual, which seems to be our tendency toward idolatry when it comes to knowing God. But I’ll have to come back to this and think some more on it. Being a Calvinist, I do think that the Gospel can be understood and grasped even beyond our cultures because I believe that part of regeneration is placing within the individual another individual from God’s culture, Who, when communing with His people, dominates, persuades, and helps us to understand that Gospel with a new mind given from God to understand His kingdom/culture. Do I think our cultures will get in the way? Absolutely. But I don’t think they have to get in the way, nor do I think God is incapable of helping us to understand simply because, on our own, we are incapable of understanding. I by no means think anyone can push their culture aside, and they are certainly doomed to be boxed in by it if not for that Holy Other from another world, given to us to help us understand that other world beyond ours.

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posted May 2, 2005 at 9:20 pm

sorry the line should read”they are not culture transforming the expression of the gospel, but the gospel transforming the goal/aim/purpose/object of the expression

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