I step into a minefield here and I’ll do my best to be clear and avoid silly comments.
From what I can see, the emergent movement is “post” classical, Evangelical Bible pietism. Let me explain. If you grew up as I did, or anything like I did, you were taught that the Christian life begins each day with daily Bible reading and ends each day with Bible study and on Wednesday nights or one night during the week you gather with other Christians for a Bible study. And on Sunday morning you attend a Sunday school class were you have more Bible study, and Sunday morning worship is primarily focused on an expository sermon that comes straight from the Bible.
There’s a lot of Bible in this understanding of the Christian life, so the highest marks tend to be given to those who know the most about the Bible, who can tell you right off the cuff what is in Jeremiah 26 or Psalm whatever and they can seem to pull from their biblical minds all kinds of trivia and details about all kinds of things.
Postmodernists would deconstruct this as the attempt of a Bible-drenched pastor to get his congregation to think about the Christian life the way he can think about it, but that this is really a power game. I don’t go for this sort of deconstruction, and I think there is something incredibly important about knowing the Bible and reading it. More than incredibly important. And I don’t like the cynicism of deconstruction. I’m all for humans being sinners (what I call cracked Eikons), but this goes too far and blankets the world with distrust — which is contrary to the hermeneutics of love.
But, the emergent folk are onto something here that someone like me has had to learn the hard way: knowing the Bible and being smart about the Bible and knowing all theories and fads and hermeneutical procedures and being able to womp on people with what they know is not what the Bible is all about.
First, Jesus didn’t have a Bible. Nor did anyone else around: there may have been one in the synagogue but it wasn’t loaned out to locals so they could read it when they got up. What they had they heard on Sabbath (or other days) and what they had in their hearts; they were measured by whether or not they were doing what God had called them to do. (This isn’t necessarily contrary to grace, either.)
Second, the purpose of the Bible is not mastery but being mastered. And I’m not saying anything stupid here: there is, as Bob Mulholland has said in his Shaped by the Word, a distinction to be drawn between informational readings of the Bible and formational readings of the Bible. Both are needed, but the former is easier to quantify and measure (we are back to our legalism blog) and the latter is hard to measure. Again, we need both so don’t get in a huff about this.
Pietism among the emergent, though I don’t see that term very often, is not measured by how much one knows about the Bible or how often reads the Bible or which version one reads, but whether or not one follows Jesus. It is about that clear and that rock-bottom.
I’m a bit nervous about this sometimes, but I know that they are right. Piety measured by Bible knowledge is not the center of what we are about.
Now, to turn the gears, there is a place for emergent folk — whoever is willing to do this — to take up the task of articulating a “theory of the Bible” and how it functions.
Let me suggest that I see it operating like this:
In classical Evangelicalism, Scripture is Prolegomena. First, we establish that the Bible is the Word of God, that it is inerrant, and then we can do theology. If this isn’t foundationalism, in a theological key, then I’m not sure what it is.
For the Emergent folk, Scripture is a derivative rather than a first-order doctrine. It works like this, so it seems to me: God is a Trinity; the Spirit creates the Church and guides it into all truth; the Church expresses that Spirit-inspired guidance in writings; the Church, guided by the Spirit, comes together and shapes the Canon. Thus, the doctrine of Scripture is a derivative of pneumatology (the Spirit) and ecclesiology (the Church). In addition, the Scripture is preeminently a missional text that we read so we can discern how God would have us live in our day.