Yesterday Tony Jones published a statement by LeRon Shults about whether or not Emergent should have a doctrinal statement. LeRon says “No, Emergent shouldn’t have a statement of faith.” I stand with those who think Emergent should not have a statement of faith, but I would narrow my reasons to one basic consideration. So here’s the statement by LeRon and my comments follow:
From Tony Jones, National Coordinator, Emergent-U.S.
Yes, we have been inundated with requests for our statement of faith in Emergent, but some of us had an inclination that to formulate something would take us down a road that we don’t want to trod. So, imagine our joy when a leading theologian joined our ranks and said that such a statement would be disastrous. That’s what happened when we started talking to LeRon Shults, late of Bethel Seminary and now heading off to a university post in Norway. LeRon is the author of many books, all of which you should read, and now the author a piece to guide us regarding statements of faith and doctrine. Read on…
From LeRon Shults:
The coordinators of Emergent have often been asked (usually by their critics) to proffer a doctrinal statement that lays out clearly what they believe. I am merely a participant in the conversation who delights in the ongoing reformation that occurs as we bring the Gospel into engagement with culture in ever new ways. But I have been asked to respond to this ongoing demand for clarity and closure. I believe there are several reasons why Emergent should not have a “statement of faith” to which its members are asked (or required) to subscribe. Such a move would be unnecessary, inappropriate and disastrous.
Why is such a move unnecessary? Jesus did not have a “statement of faith.” He called others into faithful relation to God through life in the Spirit. As with the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, he was not concerned primarily with whether individuals gave cognitive assent to abstract propositions but with calling persons into trustworthy community through embodied and concrete acts of faithfulness. The writers of the New Testament were not obsessed with finding a final set of propositions the assent to which marks off true believers. Paul, Luke and John all talked much more about the mission to which we should commit ourselves than they did about the propositions to which we should assent. The very idea of a “statement of faith” is mired in modernist assumptions and driven by modernist anxieties – and this brings us to the next point.
Such a move would be inappropriate. Various communities throughout church history have often developed new creeds and confessions in order to express the Gospel in their cultural context, but the early modern use of linguistic formulations as “statements” that allegedly capture the truth about God with certainty for all cultures and contexts is deeply problematic for at least two reasons. First, such an approach presupposes a (Platonic or Cartesian) representationalist view of language, which has been undermined in late modernity by a variety of disciplines across the social and physical sciences (e.g., sociolinguistics and paleo-biology). Why would Emergent want to force the new wine of the Spirit’s powerful transformation of communities into old modernist wineskins? Second, and more importantly from a theological perspective, this fixation with propositions can easily lead to the attempt to use the finite tool of language on an absolute Presence that transcends and embraces all finite reality. Languages are culturally constructed symbol systems that enable humans to communicate by designating one finite reality in distinction from another. The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping, as all the great theologians from Irenaeus to Calvin have insisted, and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry.
Why would it be disastrous? Emergent aims to facilitate a conversation among persons committed to living out faithfully the call to participate in the reconciling mission of the biblical God. Whether it appears in the by-laws of a congregation or in the catalog of an educational institution, a “statement of faith” tends to stop conversation. Such statements can also easily become tools for manipulating or excluding people from the community. Too often they create an environment in which real conversation is avoided out of fear that critical reflection on one or more of the sacred propositions will lead to excommunication from the community. Emergent seeks to provide a milieu in which others are welcomed to join in the pursuit of life “in” the One who is true (1 John 5:20). Giving into the pressure to petrify the conversation in a “statement” would make Emergent easier to control; its critics could dissect it and then place it in a theological museum alongside other dead conceptual specimens the curators find opprobrious. But living, moving things do not belong in museums. Whatever else Emergent may be, it is a movement committed to encouraging the lively pursuit of God and to inviting others into a delightfully terrifying conversation along the way.
This does not mean, as some critics will assume, that Emergent does not care about belief or that there is no role at all for propositions. Any good conversation includes propositions, but they should serve the process of inquiry rather than shut it down. Emergent is dynamic rather than static, which means that its ongoing intentionality is (and may it ever be) shaped less by an anxiety about finalizing state-ments than it is by an eager attention to the dynamism of the Spirit’s disturbing and comforting presence, which is always reforming us by calling us into an ever-intensifying participation in the Son’s welcoming of others into the faithful embrace of God.
What I like most about Emergent is that it is wondrous conversation (at times), and there are no doubt plenty who would agree with LeRon Shults here. I agree with the thrust of his points but I would restrict my rationale to his last major point. I think he will take this as a conversation and not as criticism.
First, as we learn from both Jamie Smith’s response to LeRon at Think Tank and LeRon’s agreement, there are some fine distinctions being made here:
1. That a “creed” and a “doctrinal statement” are not the same thing. LeRon connects creed to the ancient formulae of our faith and doctrinal statements to the modern day and to modernism.
2. That a “creed” functions differently than a “doctrinal statement.” The latter, so they suggest, tries to capture the truth of God, Christ, faith, etc in timeless and permanent forms. Creeds don’t do that.
3. Jesus’ non-creedal approach to theology is a consideration but not one I’d hang my coat on too often. Why? Theological commitments are implicit to Jesus’ teachings, etc., and it takes time to define a movement theologically — and the early Christians did this, and Irenaeus did this, and it evolved into the Nicene Creed. Organic development, to be sure, but not one that denied that development’s existence.
4. That creeds and doctrinal statements are never enough: we need to relate to God and others properly. LeRon’s spot-on here and this drives much of his concern, in fact perhaps more than is apparent. Emergent has its pulse right here.
So, let me complexify the conversation a bit. (I know as a NT specialist I’m not supposed to do this, as it is often the game of the philosophers.)
Second, I’m not so sure the distinction between creed and doctrinal statement is that clear, but I do maintain that we all tend to operate a few levels: creed (defining classical orthodoxy), confessions (denominational statements that specify more than creeds), and doctrinal statements (denominational or otherwise statements that tend to be more specific to local churches). There is a spectrum here — that is what I’m saying and I’m not so sure I’d make as radical of distinctions as either Jamie or LeRon make — but I could be wrong. I often am.
Third, while I agree with LeRon that some doctrinal statements make too robust of claims, can become too arrogant, and at times get too puffy, I’m not so skeptical about the potency of language to capture truth. In general, I think LeRon permits himself some (delightfully fun) overstatements with some via negativa comments in his first two points. Our language never exhausts the truth but it can tell the truth — or articulate the truth as we know it and experience it. Our critics will immediately point out here that there are false dichotomies, and while I think LeRon is ranking things with the method called via negativa, I’m afraid he’ll be misunderstood. His comment back to Jamie Smith at Think Tank shows that he agrees with our suggestions (I think).
As I think about this a bit, I wonder if Lindbeck’s more linguistic community paradigm might ask of us to come up with a little more of a set of theological claims to identify.
Fourth, however, Emergent should not offer a doctrinal statement. Emergent is not a denomination; nor is it an affiliation of churches on the basis of shared theological commitments. Emergent is a clearing-house for a conversation, an affiliation of friends who, whether as individuals or churches or groups or publishers, want to communicate with one another and explore a vast array of practices and theological concepts.
We have enough doctrinal statements and confessions.
Emergent has expressed that is living out a Christian faith today that derives from the classical creeds as it says at Emergent Village, “affirming the historic Christian faith.”
The historic faith is enough to sustain legitimate bounds to a conversation; that is what Emergent is.
I do think Emergent could help itself by making it a little clearer that it affirms the historic faith (at least more often), but I’m not sure its critics care to listen to Emergent when it says these things. I wish I didn’t have to say this, but we have to because so many critics refuse to listen to the affirmations that are made.
But, it would not be right for what Emergent is doing to (1) define itself by a doctrinal statement and then (2) require that its affiliations and friends agree to that if they want to participate in the conversation. The genius of Emergent is that it is a conversation and it wants the conversation to be open enough that all kinds of things can be brought to the table.